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The role of spines in anthropogenic seed dispersal on the Galápagos islands

Cite this dataset

Johnson, Marc; Johnson, Mae; Johnson, Oscar; Johnson, Reagan (2020). The role of spines in anthropogenic seed dispersal on the Galápagos islands [Dataset]. Dryad.


  1. Dispersal has important ecological and evolutionary consequences for populations, but understanding the role of specific traits in dispersal can be difficult and requires careful experimentation. Moreover, understanding how humans alter dispersal is an important question, especially on oceanic islands where anthropogenic disturbance through species introductions can dramatically alter native ecosystems. 
  2. In this study, we investigated the functional role of spines in seed dispersal of the plant caltrop (Tribulus cistoides L., Zygophyllaceae) by anthropogenic agents. We also tested whether anthropogenic or wildlife are more important seed dispersers of T. cistoides on the Galápagos. 
  3. Tribulus cistoides is found on tropical mainland and oceanic island habitats. The dispersal structure of T. cistoides is called a mericarp, and they are typically protected by one pair of upper spines and a second pair of lower spines, but the presence and size of spines varies within and between populations. On the Galápagos, the upper and lower spines protect mericarps from seed predation by Darwin’s finches. We tested whether spines play a dual role in dispersal by factorially manipulating the presence/absence of the upper and lower spines to simulate the natural variation in mericarp morphology.
  4. The upper spines greatly facilitated seed dispersal, whereas the lower spines had no discernible effect on dispersal. The presence of upper spines increased dispersal rate on shoes by pedestrians 23-fold, on fabrics (e.g. towels) and cars by nearly 2-fold, and the presence of upper spines increased dispersal distance by cars 6-fold. When comparing dispersal rates in habitats with high (roads and foot paths) versus low (arid forest) anthropogenic activity, dispersal rates were demonstrably higher in the habitats with more human activity. 
  5. These results have important implications for understanding the ecology and evolution of plant dispersal in the Anthropocene. Spines on the fruits of T. cistoides play important functional roles in anthropogenic dispersal, whereas native and introduced wildlife play a minor role in dispersal on inhabited islands of the Galápagos. Our results imply that seed predators and humans are jointly shaping the ecology and evolution of contemporary populations of T. cistoides on the Galápagos.