, Volume 157, Issue 2, pp 307-316
Date: 04 Jun 2008

Improved recruitment of a lemur-dispersed tree in Malagasy dry forests after the demise of vertebrates in forest fragments

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The objective of this study was to examine how the processes of seed dispersal and seed predation were altered in forest fragments of the dry forest of Madagascar, where the usual seed dispersers and vertebrate seed predators were absent, using a lemur-dispersed tree species (Strychnos madagascariensis; Loganiaceae) as an example. We then assessed how the changes in vertebrate community composition alter the regeneration pattern and establishment of this tree species and thus, ultimately, the species composition of the forest fragments. By using size-selective exclosures, data from forest fragments were compared with results from continuous forest where vertebrate dispersers and predators were abundant. Visits to the exclosures by mammalian seed predators were monitored with hair traps. In the continuous forest up to 100% of the seeds were removed within the 7 days of the experiments. A substantial proportion of them was lost to seed predation by native rodents. In contrast, practically no predation took place in the forest fragments and almost all seeds removed were dispersed into the safety of ant nests by Aphaenogaster swammerdami, which improves chances of seedling establishment. In congruence with these findings, the abundance of S. madagascariensis in the forest fragments exceeded that of the continuous forest. Thus, the lack of vertebrate seed dispersers in these forest fragments did not lead to a decline in regeneration of this animal-dispersed tree species as would have been expected, but rather was counterbalanced by the concomitant demise of vertebrate seed predators and an increased activity of ants taking over the role of seed dispersers, and possibly even out-doing the original candidates. This study provides an example of a native vertebrate-dispersed species apparently profiting from fragmentation due to flexible animal-plant interactions in different facets, possibly resulting in an impoverished tree species community.

Communicated by Jacqui Shykoff.