Constraints on avian seed dispersal reduce potential for resilience in degraded tropical forests

Jack Henry Hatfield, Cristina Banks-Leite, Jos Barlow, Alexander Lees, Joseph A Tobias

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Seed dispersal is fundamental to tropical forest resilience. Forest loss or degradation typically leads to defaunation, altering seed transfer dynamics and impairing the ability of forested habitats to regenerate or recover from perturbation. However, the extent of defaunation, and its likely impacts on the seed dispersers needed to restore highly degraded or clear-felled areas, remains poorly understood in tropical forest landscapes.
To quantify defaunation of seed-dispersing birds, we used field survey data from 499 transects in three forested regions of Brazil, first comparing the observed assemblages with those predicted by geographic range maps, and then assessing habitat associations of frugivores across land cover gradients.
We found that current bird assemblages have lower functional diversity (FD) than predicted by species range maps in Amazonia (4%–6%), with a greater reduction in FD (28%) for the Atlantic Forest, which has been more heavily deforested for a longer period.
Direct measures of seed dispersal are difficult to obtain, so we focused on potential seed transfer inferred from shared species occurrence. Of 83 predominantly frugivorous bird species recorded in relatively intact forests, we show that 10% were absent from degraded forest, and 57% absent from the surrounding matrix of agricultural land covers, including many large-gaped species. Of 112 frugivorous species using degraded forest, 47% were absent from matrix habitats. Overall, frugivores occurring in both intact forest and matrix habitats were outnumbered by (mostly small-gaped) frugivores occurring in both degraded forest and matrix habitats (23 additional species; 64% higher diversity).
These findings suggest that birds have the potential to disperse seeds from intact and degraded forest to adjacent cleared lands, but that direct seed transfer from intact forests is limited, particularly for large-seeded trees. Degraded forests may play a vital role in supporting natural regeneration of small-seeded tree species as well as providing a ‘stepping-stone’ in the regeneration pathway for large-seeded trees. We propose that both intact and degraded forests will support the restoration potential of tropical forest landscapes, and that bird-assisted seed dispersal can be enhanced by maintaining buffer zones of degraded or secondary forests around remaining intact forest patches.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalFunctional Ecology
Early online date16 Nov 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Nov 2023

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