Seed Dispersal via Caching – The Story of Antelope Bitterbrush

Generally speaking, individual plants produce an enormous amount of seeds. This may seem like a huge waste of resources, but the reality is that while each seed has the potential to grow into an adult plant that will one day produce seeds of its own, relatively few may achieve this. Some seeds will be eaten before they get a chance to germinate. Others germinate and soon die from lack of water, disease, or herbivory. Those that make it past the seedling stage continue to face similar pressures. Reaching adulthood, then, is a remarkable achievement.

Antelope bitterbrush is a shrub that produces hundreds of seeds per individual. Each seed is about the size of an apple seed. Some seeds may be eaten right away. Others fall to the ground and are ignored. But a large number are collected by rodents and either stored in burrows (larder hoarding) or in shallow depressions in the soil (scatter hoarding). It is through caching that antelope bitterbrush seeds are best dispersed. When rodents fail to return to caches during the winter, the seeds are free to sprout in the spring. Some of the seedlings will dry out and others will be eaten, but a few will survive, making the effort to produce all those seeds worth it in the end.

Fruits forming on antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata)

Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) is in the rose family and is often simply referred to as bitterbrush. It occurs in grasslands, shrub steppes, and dry woodlands throughout large sections of western North America. It is a deciduous shrub that generally reaches between three and nine feet tall but can grow up to twelve feet. It has wedge-shaped leaves that are green on top, grayish on bottom, and three-lobed. Flowers are yellow, strongly fragrant, and similar in appearance to others in the rose family. Flowering occurs mid-spring to early summer. Fruits are achenes – single seeds surrounded by papery or leathery coverings. The covering must rot away or be removed by animals before the seed can germinate.

Bitterbrush is an important species for wildlife. It is browsed by mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and other ungulates, including livestock. It provides cover for birds, rodents, reptiles, and ungulates. Its seeds are collected by harvester ants and rodents, its foliage is consumed by tent caterpillars and other insects, and its flowers are visited by a suite of pollinators. For all that it offers to the animal kingdom, it also relies on it for pollination and seed dispersal. The flowers of bitterbrush are self-incompatible, and if it wasn’t for ants and rodents, the heavy seeds – left to rely on wind and gravity – would have trouble getting any further than just a few feet from the parent plant.

Antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) in full bloom – photo credit: wikimedia commons

In a study published in The American Naturalist (February 1993), Stephen Vander Wall reported that yellow pine chipmunks were the primary dispersal agents of bitterbrush seeds in his Sierra Nevada study area. The optimal depth for seedling establishment was between 10-30 millimeters. Seeds that are cached too near the surface risk being pushed out of the ground during freeze and thaw cycles where they can desiccate upon germination. Cached bitterbrush seeds benefit when there are several seeds per cache because, as Vander Wall notes, “clumps of seedlings are better able to push through the soil and can establish from greater depths than single seedlings.”

Another study by Vander Wall, published in Ecology (October 1994), reiterated the importance of seed caching by yellow pine chipmunks in the establishment of bitterbrush seedlings. Seed caches, which consisted of anywhere from two to over a hundred seeds, were located as far as 25 meters from the parent plant. Cached seeds are occasionally moved to another location, but Vander Wall found that even these secondary caches produce seedlings. Of course, not all of the seedlings that sprout grow to maturity. Vander Wall states, “attrition over the years gradually reduces the number of seedlings within clumps.” Yet, more than half of the mature shrubs he observed in his study consisted of two or more individuals, leading him to conclude that “they arose from rodent caches.”

A study published in the Journal of Range Management (January 1996) looked at the herbivory of bitterbrush seedlings by rodents. In the introduction the authors discuss how “rodents [may] not only benefit from antelope bitterbrush seed caches as a future seed source, but also benefit from the sprouting of their caches as they return to graze the cotyledons of germinating seeds.”  In this study, Ord’s kangaroo rats, deer mice, and Great Basin pocket mice were all observed consuming bitterbrush seedlings, preferring them even when millet was offered as an alternative. The two species of mice also dug up seedlings, possibly searching for ungerminated seeds. Despite seed dispersal via caching, an overabundance of rodents can result in few bitterbrush seedlings reaching maturity.

A cluster of antelope bitterbrush seedlings that has been browsed. “Succulent, young seedlings are thought to be important in the diets of rodents during early spring because of the nutrients and water they contain.” — Vander Wall (1994)

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Photos of antelope bitterbrush seedling clusters were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden, where numerous clusters are presently on display along the pathways of the native plant gardens and the adjoining natural areas. 

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4 thoughts on “Seed Dispersal via Caching – The Story of Antelope Bitterbrush

  1. Very interesting! I wonder if the concept of a group of seeds’ being able to push up better from a deeper depth applies to other types of plants, as well. If so, that would certainly be something to consider when reseeding damaged areas with native plants.

  2. I know this as cliff rose! An AZ thing, maybe? I’ve never heard anyone call it antelope bitterbrush. I know field guides call the flowers yellow but that’s always confused me- the corolla is totally cream colored. Maaaybe cream-yellow. Great post!

    • There is a closely related species called cliff rose. Purshia stansburiana. That may be what you’re thinking of? Either way, thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading!

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