Mast-seeding in the cycad genus Encephalartos: a test of the predator satiation hypothesis

Research paper by John S. Donaldson

Indexed on: 01 May '93Published on: 01 May '93Published in: Oecologia


Mast-seeding behaviour was monitored in 18 populations of eight species of the African cycad genus Encephalartos between 1988 and 1991. The coefficient of variation (V) in annual cone production for each population ranged between 88 and 200, indicating large fluctuations in reproductive effort between years. Data were collected to determine whether mast-seeding reduced levels of predispersal seed predation by satiating seed predators in mast years and whether it resulted in a reproductive advantage over plants which reproduced more frequently. Masting intensity was greatest in those populations in which individual plants suffered the highest levels of predispersal seed predation in years when only a few plants produced seeds. The principal seed predators were two congeneric weevil species, Antliarhinus zamiae and A. signatus, which develop exclusively on cycad seeds. The lowest intensity of mast-seeding was recorded for cycad populations with low levels of seed predation and in which A. zamiae and A. signatus occurred only in low numbers or were entirely absent. Larger seed crops appeared to result in lower levels of seed predation by A. zamiae and A. signatus in four populations of E. altensteinii, and differences in seed crop size accounted for 48–66% of variation in levels of seed predation in populations of five cycad species. In one population of E. altensteinii, lower levels of seed predation in plants reproducing periodically resulted in a reproductive advantage over plants reproducing more frequently. These results are consistent with the predator satiation hypothesis. However, in most cycad populations, numbers of seed predators did not appear to decrease significantly after a period of 2–8 years between reproductive episodes and, in two of three populations examined, periodic reproduction did not increase the number of seeds surviving to dispersal over a 4-year period. These results are interpreted to mean that periodic reproduction has not evolved in response to selection imposed by seed predators, but that selection may favour those plants which experience lower levels of seed predation by coning in synchrony with the majority of plants in the population.