Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is a distinctive and charismatic plant of the Mojave Desert. Although floral biology and seed production of Joshua tree and other yuccas are well understood, the fate of Joshua tree seeds has never been studied. We tested the hypothesis that Joshua tree seeds are dispersed by seed-caching rodents. We radioactively labelled Joshua tree seeds and followed their fates at five source plants in Potosi Wash, Clark County, Nevada, USA. Rodents made a mean of 30.6 caches, usually within 30 m of the base of source plants. Caches contained a mean of 5.2 seeds buried 3–30 mm deep. A variety of rodent species appears to have prepared the caches. Three of the 836 Joshua tree seeds (0.4%) cached germinated the following spring. Seed germination using rodent exclosures was nearly 15%. More than 82% of seeds in open plots were removed by granivores, and neither microsite nor supplemental water significantly affected germination. Joshua tree produces seeds in indehiscent pods or capsules, which rodents dismantle to harvest seeds. Because there is no other known means of seed dispersal, it is possible that the Joshua tree–rodent seed dispersal interaction is an obligate mutualism for the plant.
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Vol. 13 • No. 4