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Hunting-induced defaunation drives increased seed predation and decreased seedling establishment of commercially important tree species in an Afrotropical forest

Rosin, Cooper, Poulsen, John R.
Forest ecology and management 2016 v.382 pp. 206-213
fauna, fungi, humans, invertebrates, land use, mortality, reproductive success, rodents, seed predation, seedlings, seeds, species recruitment, trees, tropical forests, wildlife, Gabon
Human hunting is widespread in tropical forests and can substantially alter the plant-animal interactions that drive tree recruitment. Seed predation is a strong determinant of plant reproductive success, but it remains unclear how defaunation modifies this process. We examined the effects of hunting-induced defaunation on seed predation and seedling establishment, using replicated exclosure treatments at six sites across a defaunation gradient in northeastern Gabon. We monitored 5580 seeds of eight commercially important tree species that varied in seed traits such as size and dispersal mode. Rodents caused the greatest seed mortality for all species, removing ∼60% of accessible seeds. In comparison, invertebrates and fungi together caused just 6% of seed mortality. With protection from rodents, more than twice as many seeds established as seedlings, demonstrating that vertebrate seed predation was a strong filter on recruitment. With increasing defaunation, the proportion of seeds removed by rodents increased significantly, and seedling establishment decreased significantly, for most species. In heavily defaunated sites, with the lowest abundances of large mammals, seed removal by rodents increased by 63% and seedling establishment decreased by 42% compared to sites with intact fauna. Diminished seedling establishment is likely to reduce the regeneration of many tree species – including some with commercial importance – in hunted forests, with detrimental economic consequences. In turn, declines in timber regeneration may increase the likelihood that selectively logged forests are converted to non-forest land uses with little conservation value. Appropriate management could preclude these outcomes, to the benefit of both wildlife and natural timber regeneration.