The evolution of specific seed traits in scatter-hoarded tree species often has been attributed to granivore foraging behavior. However, the degree to which foraging investments and seed traits correlate with phylogenetic relationships among trees remains unexplored. We presented seeds of 23 different hardwood tree species (families Betulaceae, Fagaceae, Juglandaceae) to eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), and measured the time and distance travelled by squirrels that consumed or cached each seed. We estimated 11 physical and chemical seed traits for each species, and the phylogenetic relationships between the 23 hardwood trees. Variance partitioning revealed that considerable variation in foraging investment was attributable to seed traits alone (27-73%), and combined effects of seed traits and phylogeny of hardwood trees (5-55%). A phylogenetic PCA (pPCA) on seed traits and tree phylogeny resulted in 2 "global" axes of traits that were phylogenetically autocorrelated at the family and genus level and a third "local" axis in which traits were not phylogenetically autocorrelated. Collectively, these axes explained 30-76% of the variation in squirrel foraging investments. The first global pPCA axis, which produced large scores for seed species with thin shells, low lipid and high carbohydrate content, was negatively related to time to consume and cache seeds and travel distance to cache. The second global pPCA axis, which produced large scores for seeds with high protein, low tannin and low dormancy levels, was an important predictor of consumption time only. The local pPCA axis primarily reflected kernel mass. Although it explained only 12% of the variation in trait space and was not autocorrelated among phylogenetic clades, the local axis was related to all four squirrel foraging investments. Squirrel foraging behaviors are influenced by a combination of phylogenetically conserved and more evolutionarily labile seed traits that is consistent with a weak or more diffuse coevolutionary relationship between rodents and hardwood trees rather than a direct coevolutionary relationship. © 2015 Sundaram et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


Sundaram M., Willoughby J.R., Lichti N.I., Steele M.A., Swihart R.K. Segregating the effects of seed traits and common ancestry of hardwood trees on eastern gray squirrel foraging decisions. PLOS ONE Volume 10, Issue 6, 25 June 2015, Article number e0130942.

(CC BY 4.0)


Date of this Version