Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Animals contribute to seagrass dispersal: Fish, terrapins, and birds may help spread eelgrass seeds into new areas

Date:
December 19, 2012
Source:
Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Summary:
A new study is first to show that marine animals can disperse eelgrass seeds, with implications for management and restoration.

Biotic Seed Dispersal: Sarah Sumoski studied biotic seed dispersal by feeding eelgrass seeds to mummichogs and other common inhabitants of eelgrass beds in Chesapeake Bay.
Credit: Photo by Scott Marion

Look out the window and you're likely to see the dispersal of seeds -- dandelion tufts in the wind, a squirrel burying an acorn, a robin flying off with a dogwood fruit. You might even have a burr "velcroed" to your sock.

Related Articles


Sarah Sumoski, a recent graduate of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has now published a study of seed dispersal in a less-familiar environment -- the eelgrass beds of Chesapeake Bay. The study -- the first to show that marine animals can disperse eelgrass seeds -- appears as the featured article for the Dec. 19th issue of Marine Ecology Progress Series. It is co-authored by Dr. Robert "JJ" Orth, head of the Seagrass Monitoring and Restoration program at VIMS and Sumoski's major professor.

Eelgrass -- like other seagrasses -- is a flowering plant that reproduces both by sending out rhizomes (like crabgrass) and producing tiny underwater seeds (like the fescues of many lawns). Eelgrass beds play a key ecological role in Chesapeake Bay and other coastal ecosystems but are in decline worldwide due to cloudy waters, warm temperatures, and excess nutrients that encourage the growth of light-stealing algae.

Understanding how seagrass seeds are dispersed is important for guiding efforts to restore seagrass meadows in Chesapeake Bay and other coastal ecosystems, and for informing the models that are used to guide seagrass management plans and restoration efforts.

"Traditional thinking is that eelgrass disperses by abiotic mechanisms such as floating seeds, floating reproductive shoots, or currents pushing seeds along the seafloor," says Sumoski. "Our study shows that eelgrass seeds can also be dispersed through consumption and excretion by fish, terrapins, and birds -- providing a means to bring seeds to isolated areas unlikely to receive seeds via abiotic mechanisms. In fact, we think the distance a seed travels via biotic dispersal may rival or exceed the distances recorded from abiotic mechanisms."

Sumoski and Orth conducted the study through 3 years of painstaking laboratory experiments in which they fed 1,707 eelgrass seeds to animals often found in and around eelgrass beds -- 3 fish species (northern puffers, pinfish, and mud minnows or mummichogs), diamondback terrapins, and a seabird, the lesser scaup. Previous studies have recovered eelgrass seeds from the stomachs of these or similar species, and all 5 have been observed feeding in eelgrass beds, making deliberate or inadvertent ingestion of eelgrass seeds likely.

Sumoski then retrieved seeds -- each smaller than a rice grain -- from the animals' feces, noted their condition, and planted intact seeds in experimental tanks containing sediments and water from the York River near VIMS' riverside campus in Gloucester Point, Virginia.

The results of their experiments showed that the seeds were able to survive passage through the gut of all the animals studied, with excretion and germination rates highest for mummichogs and northern puffers, moderate for pinfish and diamondback terrapins, and lowest for scaup.

They also calculated how far the animals might be able to carry the seeds, by measuring how long it took the seeds to pass through the gut of each species, and multiplying those values by reported swimming or flying speeds for each creature.

"We estimate that the fishes could disperse eelgrass seeds 10s to 100s of meters, while the maximum dispersal distance for terrapins is around 1,500 meters, or about a mile," says Sumoski. "The scaup was the champ, with a maximum dispersal distance of more than 10 miles."

Physical mechanisms have been shown to disperse eelgrass seeds similar distances: 10s of meters for seeds moved along the seafloor by currents, 100s of meters for individual floating seeds, and more than 100 kilometers for intact flowering shoots, which can float on the surface for weeks and contain multiple seeds. Sumoksi points out, however, that "the animals are likely to be more effective dispersal agents, as they prefer to live under the conditions that favor seagrass growth and thus will tend to carry seeds to areas where they'll germinate. Wind and currents can easily disperse seeds into areas unsuitable for seagrass growth."

Sumoski adds that dispersal of seagrass seeds by animals not included in her study -- such as manatees, dugongs, and green turtles -- could carry seeds of seagrass species found in tropical waters for distances greatly exceeding those of abiotic mechanisms.

Overall, she says, "While seeds will suffer mortality through ingestion and digestion, some proportion can be expected to survive, germinate, and grow to adult plants, meaning that dispersion by animals can lead to re-colonization of past eelgrass meadows, or even the colonization of new habitats. That's good news for eelgrass beds and the organisms that rely on them for habitat, nursery grounds, and food."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. SE Sumoski, RJ Orth. Biotic dispersal in eelgrass Zostera marina. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 2012; 471: 1 DOI: 10.3354/meps10145

Cite This Page:

Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "Animals contribute to seagrass dispersal: Fish, terrapins, and birds may help spread eelgrass seeds into new areas." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 December 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121219174202.htm>.
Virginia Institute of Marine Science. (2012, December 19). Animals contribute to seagrass dispersal: Fish, terrapins, and birds may help spread eelgrass seeds into new areas. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121219174202.htm
Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "Animals contribute to seagrass dispersal: Fish, terrapins, and birds may help spread eelgrass seeds into new areas." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121219174202.htm (accessed November 24, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Plants & Animals News

Monday, November 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Ebola-Hit Sierra Leone's Late Cocoa Leaves Bitter Taste

Ebola-Hit Sierra Leone's Late Cocoa Leaves Bitter Taste

AFP (Nov. 23, 2014) The arable district of Kenema in Sierra Leone -- at the centre of the Ebola outbreak in May -- has been under quarantine for three months as the cocoa harvest comes in. Duration: 01:32 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Anglerfish Rarely Seen In Its Habitat Will Haunt You

Anglerfish Rarely Seen In Its Habitat Will Haunt You

Newsy (Nov. 22, 2014) For the first time Monterey Bay Aquarium recorded a video of the elusive, creepy and rarely seen anglerfish. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Birds Around the World Take Flight

Birds Around the World Take Flight

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Nov. 22, 2014) An imperial eagle equipped with a camera spreads its wings over London. It's just one of the many birds making headlines in this week's "animal roundup". Jillian Kitchener reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Your Genes Be The Reason You're Single?

Could Your Genes Be The Reason You're Single?

Newsy (Nov. 21, 2014) Researchers in Beijing discovered a gene called 5-HTA1, and carriers are reportedly 20 percent more likely to be single. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins