The role of waterbirds in the dispersal of aquatic organisms in southern Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Dispersal is a fundamental process with far-reaching ecological and evolutionary consequences. Not all organisms are capable of dispersing on their own and instead produce propagules that must be transported to new habitat by a vector. Propagule dispersal by frugivorous bird species is well researched, but only very recently has the capacity of highly mobile waterbirds to disperse aquatic organisms received similar attention in the dispersal literature. Dispersal is important for the organisation of communities, and therefore understanding the frequency and scale of waterbird-mediated dispersal provides insight into the structure of wetland communities. Additionally, the study of waterbird-mediated dispersal in arid southern Africa provides an opportunity to expand our knowledge on the persistence of populations of aquatic organisms in heterogeneous environments. Recently, field and laboratory studies have demonstrated the remarkable ability of waterbirds to disperse the propagules of both plants and aquatic invertebrates. However, these studies have largely been based in the northern hemisphere and many have focussed on long-distance dispersal by migratory waterbirds. Therefore, it is difficult to generalise how waterbird-mediated dispersal plays out in different landscapes and throughout the annual cycle. Furthermore, there is still little knowledge of the spatial patterns of propagule dispersal and the mechanisms that cause these patterns to vary in space and over time. This thesis aims to addresses several of these knowledge gaps in waterbird-mediated dispersal and presents the first detailed study of propagule dispersal by waterbirds anywhere in Africa. In Chapters 2 - 5, I adopt a field- and experimental-based approach to develop a general understanding of waterbird-mediated dispersal in southern Africa. Firstly, making use of faecal samples and feather brushings collected from several waterfowl (duck) species at three locations in South Africa, I determine the quantity and viability of propagules transported via endozoochory and ectozoochory. I then assess the relative contributions of each dispersal mode to the dispersal of plants and aquatic invertebrates in the field. I show that endozoochory is the dominant dispersal mechanism, but it may be complementary to ectozoochory as different propagules are transported via this mode. Secondly, by making use of an experimental feeding trial with two captive waterfowl species, Egyptian Goose and Red-billed Teal, I explore how seed traits mediate a trade-off in recoverability and germinability against gut retention times. I show that small, hard-seeded species are retained for longer and therefore may be dispersed further. Thirdly, I incorporate gut retention time data and Egyptian Goose and Red-billed Teal movement data, acquired from GPS satellite transmitters across five study populations in southern Africa, into a mechanistic model to explore spatial patterns of seed dispersal. The model demonstrates that waterfowl generally facilitate dispersal on the local scale of below 5 km, but on occasion can transport seeds as far as 500 km from a seed source. There was variation in dispersal distances between the vectors and across the study populations and the results indicate that dispersal is affected by both intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of animal movement. In Chapters 6 and 7, I apply the concept of waterbird-mediated dispersal more broadly to address (1) the role of waterbirds in the dispersal of aquatic invaders; and (2) the determination of seed dispersal functional groups amongst a waterfowl community. I conducted a literature review to objectively describe the role of waterbirds in the dispersal of aquatic weeds. Waterbirds are important vectors of aquatic invasive species and consideration of the spatially explicit manner in which birds move is imperative to our understanding of invasive spread. In the second case, I used diet data from the 16 waterfowl species indigenous to southern Africa to explore whether finer level seed dispersal functional groups were evident. I found support for several functional groups of seed disperser based on unique plant families in the diet and suggest that important functional differences do occur between groups of waterfowl species.