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High-quality seed dispersal by fruit-eating fishes in Amazonian floodplain habitats

Abstract

Seed dispersal is a critical stage in the life history of plants. It determines the initial pattern of juvenile distribution, and can influence community dynamics and the evolutionary trajectories of individual species. Vertebrate frugivores are the primary vector of seed dispersal in tropical forests; however, most studies of seed dispersal focus on birds, bats and monkeys. Nevertheless, South America harbors at least 200 species of frugivorous fishes, which move into temporarily flooded habitats during lengthy flood seasons and consume fruits that fall into the water; and yet, we know remarkably little about the quality of seed dispersal they effect. We investigated the seed dispersal activities of two species of large-bodied, commercially important fishes (Colossoma macropomum and Piaractus brachypomus, Characidae) over 3 years in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve (Peru). We assessed the diet of these fishes during the flood season, conducted germination trials with seeds collected from digestive tracts, and quantified fruit availability. In the laboratory, we fed fruits to captive Colossoma, quantified the proportion of seeds defecated by adult and juvenile fish, and used these seeds in additional germination experiments. Our results indicate that Colossoma and Piaractus disperse large quantities of seeds from up to 35% of the trees and lianas that fruit during the flood season. Additionally, these seeds can germinate after floodwaters recede. Overexploitation has reduced the abundance of our focal fish species, as well as changed the age structure of populations. Moreover, older fish are more effective seed dispersers than smaller, juvenile fish. Overfishing, therefore, likely selects for the poorest seed dispersers, thus disrupting an ancient interaction between seeds and their dispersal agents.

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Acknowledgements

Funding for this study was provided by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Geographic Society (grant no. 7979-06), and the Cornell Center for the Environment. Animal care protocols were approved by the Cornell University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. F. Vermeylen helped with the statistical analyses. C. del Busto Rojas, J. Barrera Macedo, J. Vásquez, R. Rosales, S. Vázquez, S. Pérez, L. Ramírez, E. Yumbato, A. Sima, O. Yumbato, and V. Saldaña provided assistance in the field. We thank M. Geber and lab, P. Marks, T. Pendergast, M. Vellend, J. Bellemare, J. Shykoff and two anonymous reviewers for constructive criticisms on previous drafts of the manuscript. We would like to thank the Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales (Peru), the Ministerio de la Producción (Peru), and the Ministerio de Agricultura y Cria (Venezuela) for permits to conduct this research and the Instituto para la Investicación de la Amazonia Peruana (Peru) for logistical support. This study complies with the laws of Peru and Venezuela.

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Correspondence to Jill T. Anderson.

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Communicated by Jacqui Shykoff.

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Anderson, J.T., Saldaña Rojas, J. & Flecker, A.S. High-quality seed dispersal by fruit-eating fishes in Amazonian floodplain habitats. Oecologia 161, 279–290 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-009-1371-4

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Keywords

  • Colossoma macropomum
  • Germination
  • Overfishing
  • Piaractus brachypomus
  • Regeneration