The impacts of rats on the endangered native flora of French Polynesia (Pacific Islands): drivers of plant extinction or coup de grâce species?
- First Online:
- 368 Downloads
Although rats have clearly contributed to bird extinctions on islands, their role in plant extinctions is not as clear. Paleoenvironmental studies suggest rats were responsible for the demise of several island palm species. French Polynesia’s islands provide an opportunity to evaluate “modern” impacts of rats on native flora. Our study shows that 15 threatened taxa (nine families) are damaged by rats. All 12 subjected to seed predation are woody plants with large-seeded drupes. Three experience severe predation and recruitment depression (Santalum insulare, Ochrosia tahitensis, Nesoluma nadeaudii). Three-year monitoring of Polynesian sandalwood (Santalum insulare) populations in Tahiti during rat control suggested that over 99% of fruits were eaten before ripening. Seed predation on sandalwood appeared to be lower on islands without black rats Rattus rattus. Studies from Indo-Pacific islands document rat impact on at least 56 taxa (28 families). Certain families (Arecaceae, Elaeocarpaceae, Rubiaceae, Santalaceae, and Sapotaceae) are particularly vulnerable to seed predation. Other soft-barked trees (Araliaceae, Euphorbiaceae, and Malvaceae) suffer from stem or bark damages, especially during dry seasons. Although rats depress seedling recruitment and alter vegetation dynamics, no evidence demonstrates that they are solely responsible for current plant extinctions. Most of French Polynesia’s endangered species impacted by rats occur in severely degraded habitats. We therefore suggest that rats can be viewed more as coup de grâce species (i.e., that give the final stroke of death), rather than as main drivers of plant extinctions. More research is needed to clarify the impacts of rat species and their importance in plant population decline or demise.