I examined the seed dispersal ecology of the stem parasitic plant, desert mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum, Viscaceae), with the objectives of (1) determining the relative effectiveness of specialist and generalist foragers for seed dispersal, (2) determining the extent to which desert mistletoe fruiting characteristics correspond to those predicted for plants attracting specialist versus generalist foragers, and (3) examining the potential consequences of the observed dispersal strategy for mistletoe reproduction. Three species of birds, phainopepla, Gila woodpecker, and northern mockingbird, fed on desert mistletoe at my study site. The specialist, phainopepla, was the most abundant and the most likely to perch in host species, where defecated seeds had a greater probability of lodging in a site suitable for establishment. Gila woodpeckers, although abundant, spent little time in host plants, thus dooming most of the seeds they consumed. Mockingbirds may disperse a small number of seeds, but were abundant enough to consume only a small portion of the available fruits. As expected for plants attracting specialist frugivores, mistletoes produced fruits throughout the 6-month season in which phainopeplas reside in the Sonoran desert. Contrary to expectation, numbers of fruits produced far exceeded the amount that could be consumed by the frugivores at my study site. Fruit crop size was positively related to absolute fruit removal, but not to proportional removal at the scale of the entire study site. However, crop size was positively related to proportional removal within the neighborhood of mistletoes occupying an individual host tree. Frugivores were attracted to infected hosts, host attractiveness increased, although proportional removal of fruit declined, with number of female mistletoes. The observed dispersal ecology of desert mistletoe suggests the likelihood of increasingly clumped distributions of mistletoe plants, as more and more seeds are deposited on previously infected hosts, and increased density of mistletoes attract ever more visits by birds. I observed no decline in vigor, in terms of fruit production, within the levels of infestation at my study site. The seed dispersal strategy of desert mistletoe thus includes aspects of that expected both for plants dependent on specialists and those dependent on generalists. Fruits are available through the entire season to maintain the specialist. Production far exceeds that expected, but serves to attract the specialist within a neighborhood of vigorously fruiting conspecifics.
Additional publication details
Seed dispersal by specialist versus generalist foragers: the plant's perspective