|dc.description.abstract||Despite extensive international acceptance of the critical role of mammalian post-dispersal seed predation in many plant communities, in New Zealand we have limited knowledge of these predators’ influence on plant recruitment in our forests. The principle objective of my thesis was to determine the importance of exotic mammals as post-dispersal seed predators in a New Zealand conifer-broadleaf forest remnant. To address this goal, I used a series of field-based experiments where the actions of different post-dispersal seed predators were separated by wire-mesh exclosures.
My study was conducted at Mount Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve, South Canterbury, New Zealand. Being a human modified conifer forest currently dominated by broadleaf species, it is typical of forest remnants in New Zealand. This presented an opportunity to study a wide range of both potential post-dispersal seed predators and broadleaf tree species.
My findings indicate that exotic mammals are not only post-dispersal seed predators at Peel Forest, but are responsible for the majority of post-dispersal predation events observed. Ship rats (Rattus rattus) were the dominant post-dispersal seed predators, while brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula), house mice (Mus musculus) and native invertebrates were also important post-dispersal seed predators for several tree species. Through use of time-lapse video and cafeteria experiments I found that exotic mammalian seed predators, when compared to native invertebrate seed predators, preyed upon larger-seeded plant species and were responsible for considerable seed losses of several tree species. However, exotic mammalian seed predators do share several foraging characteristics with native invertebrate seed predators, as predators foraged in similar habitats and responded in a similar way to changes in seed density.
In investigating if post-dispersal seed predation by mammals had a flow-on effect to plant recruitment, I observed natural seedling densities at Peel Forest were significantly higher in the absence of mammalian seed predators, but I found no evidence that the presence of mammals significantly altered
the overall species richness. At the community level, I did not find an interaction between habitat and exotic mammals, however I present evidence that for individual plant species a significant mammal : habitat interaction occurred. Consequently, even though my cafeteria experiment implied there was no significant difference in the overall amount of seed preyed upon within different habitats, the less favourable microsite conditions for germination under an intact continuous canopy allows mammals to exacerbate habitat-related patterns of seed mortality and have a noticeable effect on seedling establishment.
In an effort to validate the use of manipulative experiments to predict the long-term effect of post-dispersal seed predation on plant dynamics, I attempted to link results of my cafeteria experiment with observed seedling abundance at Peel Forest. Seven tree species were used in this comparison and a strong correlation was observed. This result shows that the level of post-dispersal seed predation determined in the cafeteria experiment provided a good predictor of the effect of mammalian post-dispersal seed predation on seedling establishment.
To fully gauge the impact of mammalian post-dispersal seed predators on seedling establishment, the relationship between these seed predators and the type of recruitment limitation experienced by a plant species was also investigated. By using a combination of seed addition, plot manipulations and seed predator exclusion I was able to investigate this relationship. I found evidence that seed limitation at Peel Forest is positively correlated with seed size, and that while mammalian post-dispersal seed predators can further reduce plant recruitment of plant species experiencing seed limitation, the influence of mammals in determining plant recruitment was limited for plant species experiencing microsite limitation.
My study has proven that exotic mammals are now the dominant post-dispersal seed predators at Peel Forest, the amount of seed preyed upon varies among plant species, and post-dispersal seed predation by mammalian species can lead to differences in seedling richness and abundance. I proved that the influence of exotic mammals on seedling establishment is also linked to habitat structure and recruitment limitations. When combined these observations suggest that exotic mammalian post-dispersal seed predators may play an important role in determining landscape abundance and distribution of plants at Peel Forest.||en