, Volume 45, Issue 7, pp 661-673

Population biology of figs: Applications for conservation

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Summary

The flowering phenology typical of at least monoecious figs-intra-tree synchrony and inter-tree asynchrony-poses problems for persistence of the pollinator population, and hence of the fig population itself, when fig population size is small. Establishment and maintenance of a population of the short-lived, species-specific wasp pollinator require that the fig population include a critical minimum number of trees (critical population size: CPS). Below CPS, temporal gaps between flowering trees occur that are unbridgeable by the pollinator, leading to its local extinction. This has implications for conservation in two contexts: human-aided invasions of introduced fig/wasp pairs, in which initial populations of figs and/or wasps may be small, and the persistence of figs and wasps in fragmented forest, in which initially large populations may be drastically reduced. Long-distance range extension by fig/wasp pairs is problematical for two reasons: 1) the fig species must first attain CPS, most likely through repeated seed dispersal events, before the wasp can establish; and 2) long-distance transit should be difficult for the tiny, short-lived wasp pollinators. I review the biology of natural and human-aided range extension by figs and fig wasps, and show that in human-aided range extensions these two difficult steps are circumvented. Once introduced into an area where hosts are abundant, fig wasps should readily establish from a small number of initial colonists, since they mate before dispersal and are highly tolerant of inbreeding. They are thus less subject than many insects to the genetic and demographic hazards of small population size. Of 5–6 fig/wasp pairs that have performed human-aided long-distance range extensions, one Asian pair,Ficus microcarpa and its pollinatorParapristina verticillata, is established in numerous areas in the northern neotropics, and the plant may become a serious weed. In tropical forests, figs may provide keystone resources for frugivores, providing fruit during seasons when other resources are scarce. Figs pose difficult problems for conservation biology, since minimum viable populations appear to be large, and since many species of tropical rainforests occur at low densities. This means that minimum areas required for persistence of a fig population- and for those of other species that would be affected were figs to be removed from the system-may often be large.