How far did extinct vertebrates move seeds?

George L W Perry, Janet M Wilmshurst & Jamie R Wood

A moa coprolite (59 mm long) recovered from the Data River Valley in southern Aotearoa-New Zealand. Although the species is unknown, it one of four species that were living together sympatrically as described in Wood et al. 2013 (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(42), pp.16910-16915 ). These fossils are a treasure trove of information about the dietary ecology and behaviour of these now extinct flightless giant ratites. Image: Janet Wilmshurst.
A moa coprolite (59 mm long) recovered from the Data River Valley in southern Aotearoa-New Zealand. Although the species is unknown, it one of four species that were living together sympatrically as described in Wood et al. 2013 (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(42), pp.16910-16915 ). These fossils are a treasure trove of information about the dietary ecology and behaviour of these now extinct flightless giant ratites. Image: Janet Wilmshurst.

Many plants depend on animals to move their seeds. The distance seeds travel inside animals increases with body mass, meaning that large animals provide crucial long-distance seed dispersal functions. Thus, the extinction of large animals has important implications for the plants that rely on this seed dispersal process. For extant species, seed dispersal can be estimated using movement data and information about digestion. However, this approach is not possible for extinct species. We used well-established (allometric) relationships between body morphology and function to estimate the various components of seed dispersal by animals, including the disperser’s movement behaviour, speed of movement, and the time a seed is retained in the animal’s gut. We tested the model’s predictions against a suite of extant birds and used it to estimate seed dispersal kernels of three extinct birds from Aotearoa-New Zealand (A-NZ); the flightless upland moa [73-163 kg] and South Island goose [15-18 kg] and the flighted huia [300-500 g]. Our model suggests that upland moa and South Island goose may have moved seeds further than any extant native animal in A-NZ. Using this approach, we can estimate the total loss of seed dispersal services accompanying the past and ongoing extinction of vertebrates.

Read the research in full here

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