Temporary translocation of entire mistletoe plants to understand the mechanistic basis of animal foraging decisions

Melinda Cook, Andy Leigh, David M. Watson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Fruiting mistletoes present a model system for understanding decisions made by foraging animals when locating food. Where, when, and how animals find food is central to many ecological questions, relating to the basis of individual foraging decisions and the extent to which these decisions are innate or acquired. Ecologists have paid particular attention to frugivores, quantifying their preference for fruits with specific shapes, colors, or scents, which, over evolutionary time, confer selection for suites of traits in their favored plants whose seeds they disperse. This work outlines a novel experimental approach to manipulating food plant occurrence and measuring the response of wild, free-living animals, ideally suited to studying the evolutionary origin and ecological maintenance of seed dispersal. This "cut and paste" protocol involves removing an entire fruiting mistletoe plant from its host and either returning it to its original location or moving it to a novel location, affixing it to a 'pseudo-host' of the same or different tree species. By counting visits to the mistletoe and noting the duration, species, and behaviors, a series of comparisons can discern the most important factors affecting foraging decisions and the consequences for both plant and animal. Here, the protocol is illustrated with a case study to determine between-guild differences in mistletoe frugivory. The experimental approach teases apart the mechanistic basis of search image formation and refinement, spatial learning, interspecific differences in foraging strategies, and how these changes modify seed dispersal effectiveness. Finally, potential modifications are considered with respect to addressing other questions on foraging ecology, plant-animal interactions, and coevolution.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere63201
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Visualized Experiments
Issue number183
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2022


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