Many plants use birds to disperse their propagules, but mistletoes are especially reliant on their services. As aerial parasites, mistletoe seeds need to be deposited upon branches of suitable hosts, and mistletoe specialist frugivores (from eight different avian families) have long been regarded as their coevolved dispersers. Like the pioneer Johnny 'Appleseed' Chapman who established nurseries that helped open up land for settlement, these birds are considered benevolent dispersers of this keystone resource and often invoked as illustrative examples of mutualistic interactions. We have compared recent research on these specialists with studies of other birds with broader diets (generalists) which also disperse mistletoe seed. Rather than mutualists, we suggest that mistletoe specialist frugivores are better considered exploitative, with multiple lineages evolving independently to capitalize on this reliable, nutritious resource. Although mistletoe specialist frugivores are quantitatively important seed dispersers in some regions, their specialized diet restricts them to areas with high mistletoe densities, resulting in contagious dispersal patterns. By intensifying existing infections, mistletoe specialist frugivores increase their own medium-term food security-akin to market gardeners profiting from intensive cultivation. Exploring the ecological and evolutionary implications of this proposition, we evaluate the consequences of different dispersal patterns on mistletoe fitness and highlight the neglected role of dietary generalists in the stabilization of plant-animal interactions.
Watson, D., & Rawsthorne, J. (2013). Mistletoe specialist frugivores: latterday 'Johnny Appleseeds' or self-serving market gardeners? Oecologia, 172(4), 925-932. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-013-2693-9