Thieving rodents as substitute dispersers of megafaunal seeds

P.A. Jansen, B.T. Hirsch, W.J. Emsens, V. Zamora-Gutierrez, M. Wikelski, R. Kays

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

164 Citations (Scopus)


The Neotropics have many plant species that seem to be adapted for seed dispersal by megafauna that went extinct in the late Pleistocene. Given the crucial importance of seed dispersal for plant persistence, it remains a mystery how these plants have survived more than 10,000 y without their mutualist dispersers. Here we present support for the hypothesis that secondary seed dispersal by scatter-hoarding rodents has facilitated the persistence of these large-seeded species. We used miniature radio transmitters to track the dispersal of reputedly megafaunal seeds by Central American agoutis, which scatter-hoard seeds in shallow caches in the soil throughout the forest. We found that seeds were initially cached at mostly short distances and then quickly dug up again. However, rather than eating the recovered seeds, agoutis continued to move and recache the seeds, up to 36 times. Agoutis dispersed an estimated 35% of seeds for >100 m. An estimated 14% of the cached seeds survived to the next year, when a new fruit crop became available to the rodents. Serial video-monitoring of cached seeds revealed that the stepwise dispersal was caused by agoutis repeatedly stealing and recaching each other's buried seeds. Although previous studies suggest that rodents are poor dispersers, we demonstrate that communities of rodents can in fact provide highly effective long-distance seed dispersal. Our findings suggest that thieving scatter-hoarding rodents could substitute for extinct megafaunal seed dispersers of tropical large-seeded trees.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12610-12615
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • palm astrocaryum-standleyanum
  • tropical forests
  • spatial-patterns
  • acorn dispersal
  • rain-forest
  • agouti
  • recruitment
  • predation
  • tracking
  • survival

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