Behavioural responses of rodents to the scent and taste of compounds associated with sugar and protein degradation : implications for the evolution of chemical signals in rodent-pollinated flowers.
Volatile compounds in nectar may influence the behavioural responses of animal flower visitors, and thus have fitness consequences for both animal and plant mutualists. Rodents may use certain volatiles associated with sugar fermentation or protein degradation as a cue to locate food. Plants pollinated by rodents may thus emit these volatiles to enhance their attractiveness to rodents. However the presence of certain compounds in nectar may also indicate reward degradation, reducing its attractiveness to potential pollinators. The effects of these compounds on small mammal flower visitors are largely unknown and the consequences of nectar degradation by microorganisms for small mammal flower visitors need investigation. The present study examines the responses of a known rodent pollinator, the Namaqualand rock mouse Micaelamys namaquensis, an occasional floral visitor, the four-striped field mouse Rhabdomys pumilio, and a closely-related congener, the mesic four-striped field mouse Rhabdomys dilectus towards four compounds - ethanol, ethyl acetate, acetic acid and dimethyl disulphide - that are associated with the degradation of sugars and proteins. The study aimed to: (i) Identify if fermentation and protein degradation volatiles act as behavioural cues for small mammals, and have the potential to assist in the finding of food resources; and (ii) to determine the responses of rodents to the taste of volatiles in nectar. In chapter 1, I investigated whether fermentation and protein degradation volatiles elicit a behavioural response in small mammals, using a traditional Y-maze choice apparatus. Rodent species differed in their responses to the four volatiles tested. Ethanol emerged as an attractant for all of the species, with the strongest response seen at the 0.3 % ethanol concentration, while only R. dilectus responded positively to dimethyl disulphide. Acetic acid and ethyl acetate were generally not attractive. In chapter 2, the palatability of fermentation and protein degradation compounds at varying concentrations in experimental nectars was tested. A paired choice test analysis was used to determine if animals altered their choice with the addition of volatiles to sucrose solutions (0.73 and 1.46 M). Rodents showed a dose-dependent response towards the volatile concentrations presented to them. Both M. namaquensis and R. pumilio preferred medium (0.3 %) concentrations of ethanol in high sugar concentration diets, but found this compound distasteful in lower sugar concentration diets. Acetic acid and ethyl acetate were generally not preferred by any species at either sugar concentration. Dimethyl disulphide was preferred by all species when present in greater sugar concentrations (1.46 M) and at low volatile concentrations (0.003 %). These results suggest that rodents do alter their choice of nectar in relation to the tested compounds. I conclude that certain compounds associated with sugar fermentation or protein degradation have the potential to act as behavioural cues in rodent pollination and that further studies to reveal the effect of nectar degradation by microorganisms are needed to help in understanding plant-pollinator interactions.