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Forest Elephants: Tree Planters of the Congo

Blake, Stephen, Deem, Sharon Lynn, Mossimbo, Eric, Maisels, Fiona, Walsh, Peter
Biotropica 2009 v.41 no.4 pp. 459-468
Loxodonta africana, biodiversity, community structure, feces, forests, global positioning systems, landscapes, mortality, planters, seed dispersal, seedlings, seeds, telemetry, trees, tropics, vertebrates, Republic of the Congo
The abundance of large vertebrates is rapidly declining, particularly in the tropics where over-hunting has left many forests structurally intact but devoid of large animals. An urgent question then, is whether these 'empty' forests can sustain their biodiversity without large vertebrates. Here we examine the role of forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) seed dispersal in maintaining the community structure of trees in the Ndoki Forest, northern Congo. Analysis of 855 elephant dung piles suggested that forest elephants disperse more intact seeds than any other species or genus of large vertebrate in African forests, while GPS telemetry data showed that forest elephants regularly disperse seeds over unprecedented distances compared to other dispersers. Our analysis of the spatial distribution of trees from a sample of 5667 individuals showed that dispersal mechanism was tightly correlated with the scale of spatial aggregation. Increasing amounts of elephant seed dispersal was associated with decreasing aggregation. At distances of<200 m, trees whose seeds are dispersed only by elephants were less aggregated than the random expectation, suggesting Janzen-Connell effects on seed/seedling mortality. At the landscape scale, seed dispersal mode predicted the rate at which local tree community similarity decayed in space. Our results suggest that the loss of forest elephants (and other large-bodied dispersers) may lead to a wave of recruitment failure among animal-dispersed tree species, and favor regeneration of the species-poor abiotically dispersed guild of trees.