Reversing functional extinction of mammals prompts a rethink of paradigms about seed fate in arid Australia

Full citation: 
Mills C.H. & Letnic M. (2018) Reversing functional extinction of mammals prompts a rethink of paradigms about seed fate in arid Australia. Royal Society Open Science. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.171977
Author/s associated with the CES: 
Charlotte Mills
Mike Letnic

Abstract:

Functional extinction of once abundant species has frequently preceded understanding of their ecological roles. Consequently, our understanding of ecosystems is prone to shifting baselines because it often relies on observations made on depauperate species assemblages. In Australian deserts, current paradigms are that ants are the dominant granivores, mammals are unimportant seed predators and that myrmecochory in many Australian shrubs is an adaptation to increase dispersal distance and direct seeds to favourable germination sites. Here, we ask whether these paradigms could be artefacts of mammal extinction. We take advantage of a predator-proof reserve within which locally extinct native mammals have been reintroduced to compare seed removal by ants and mammals. Using foraging trays that selectively excluded mammals and ants we show that a reintroduced mammal, the woylie (Bettongia penicillata) was at least as important as ants in the removal of seeds of two shrub species (Dodonaea viscosa and Acacia ligulata). Our results provide evidence that the dominance of ants as granivores and current understanding of the adaptive benefit of myrmecochory in arid Australia may be artefacts of the functional extinction of mammals. Our study shows how reversing functional extinction can provide the opportunity to rethink contemporary understanding of ecological processes.

Access the paper here: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.171977

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