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Herbivore-induced expansion of Helianthemum nummularium in grassland-scrub mosaic vegetation: circumstantial evidence for zoochory and indirect grazing impact

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Original languageEnglish
JournalPlant Ecology
Volume218
Issue number7
Pages (from-to)867-884
ISSN1385-0237
Publication statusPublished - Jul-2017

Abstract

Extensive grazing often has a strong influence on the structure and composition of herbaceous plant communities with increasing population sizes for some species and decreasing presence in others. Herbivores affect plant communities directly by selective grazing of plant species, and indirectly by either epizoochory or endozoochory. Helianthemum nummularium is considered an increaser species because its distribution increased after the introduction of large, free-ranging grazers in at least two coastal dune grassland areas in Belgium. However, its seeds lack any obvious adaptations for epizoochory, and direct observations of plant/seed consumption are scarce.
Through field and lab experiments, we assessed the dispersal ability of H. nummularium via endozoochory and epizoochory. In a differentiated grazer exclusion experiment, evidence was found that plants are grazed by large domestic ungulates and small wild herbivores although these incidences were rare. Direct endozoochory evidence remained scarce. No seeds were found germinating in field-collected dung, and only few seedlings emerged following a seed feeding experiment. However, once deposited, we found higher growth rates when seeds were mixed with dung, while on the other hand establishment success lowered when seeds were sown in combination with competitively superior species. Epizoochory was plausible because both fur and hooves of cattle and horses were potentially capable of contributing to the transport of H. nummularium seeds.
We conclude that herbivores play a role in seed dispersal while their selective grazing behaviour most probably creates an appropriate environment for Helianthemum establishment and maintenance.

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