Sunday, December 13, 2009

Natural history of bison dispersing seeds

Bison heads carry more than horns.

Bison do a lot in grasslands. They eat, poop, pee, rub, trample, and wallow, which fundamentally can restructure how a grassland functions. If you spend enough time watching bison, you'll see them eat some unusual things. For example, early in the season, I've seen a cow systematically nip off sumac buds. Not something we typically associate with bison, at least not overly curious bison. Another thing bison do is disperse seeds. And a close look at seeds makes us rethink a bit about what they eat.

Researchers at Oklahoma State recently published a paper where they analyzed the seeds attached to bison forehead fur in the fall and fecal material over the year. In all, they found the seeds of 76 species on the fur of bison. Turns out males and females had different seeds stuck to them, which related to where they spent time.

More interesting was what was found in the fecal material. There really is only one way for seeds to get into bison pies--they have to eat them. Half the seeds were grasses, which means half weren't. This is surprising because plains bison are thought to predominantly eat grass. Yet, in the spring there were seeds of Viola. In July, there was Solanum and Lepidium. In October, there was Lepidium.

Most of the generalizations from the grass dominance of diet comes from either microhistological studies (leftover plant parts) of bison fecal material or changes in species composition. Yet, microhistological studies might underestimate forbs if their cell walls are easily degradable. Changes in species compostion with grazing show increases in forbs, but cannot rule out which forbs they might eat.

Figuring out what they eat has never been easy. Here, some simple natural history might just reset one of the fundamental assumptions about bison.

Rosas, C. A., D. M. Engle, J. H. Shaw, and M. W. Palmer. 2008. Seed dispersal by Bison bison in a tallgrass prairie. Journal of Vegetation Science 19:769-778.

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