Wild congeners of domesticated crops increasingly serve as sources of genes for improving crop cultivars. Although wild congeners have been included in seed collections for ex situ storage, there has been little work to protect populations of these wild species in their natural habitats for in situ conservation. We assessed the distribution of chile plants (Capsicum annuum L. var. aviculare [Dierbach] D'Arcy and Eshbaugh) relative to the dominant woody vegetation of one subpopulation in a single drainage in southern Arizona, U.S.A. Wild chiles were not found in direct sun, and the distribution of chiles under different nurse plants could be a function of random chance, microenvironmental differences under different nurse-plant species, or nonrandom dispersal by chile consumers. To examine chile distribution, we measured the association of wild chiles with nurse-plant species and compared these associations with the available cover provided by each nurse plant. We also measured the buffering capacity of each nurse-plant species, conducted mammalian and avian food-preference experiments to determine the taxa dispersing chiles, and conducted time-budget studies of potential chile dispersal agents. Wild chiles were not randomly distributed: over 75% were under the canopies of fleshy-fruited shrubs that collectively made up less than 25% of the cover. We found limited evidence that differences in buffering capacity affected chile distribution. Food-preference experiments suggested that birds are the only effective dispersal agents, and the time budgets of three common bird species were strongly correlated with chile plant distribution. These results lend support for directed dispersal by avian consumers. The distribution of chiles appears to be a function of interactions between consumers, nurse plants, and the secondary chemicals in the chiles themselves. Only through studies of in situ populations can we understand the interactions that sustain both wild-crop relatives and the genetic variability essential to future crop management.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Nature and Landscape Conservation