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Structural breakdown of specialized plant-herbivore interaction networks in tropical forest edges

Ximenes Pinho, Bruno, Dáttilo, Wesley, Leal, Inara R.
Global ecology and conservation 2017 v.12 pp. 1-8
ecological function, edge effects, habitats, herbivores, humans, models, pioneer species, species diversity, tropical forests
Plant-herbivore relationships are essential for ecosystem functioning, typically forming an ecological network with a compartmentalized (i.e. modular) structure characterized by highly specialized interactions. Human disturbances can favor habitat generalist species and thus cause the collapse of this modular structure, but its effects are rarely assessed using a network-based approach. We investigate how edge proximity alters plant-insect herbivore networks by comparing forest edge and interior in a large remnant (3.500 ha) of the Brazilian Atlantic forest. Given the typical dominance of pioneer plants and generalist herbivores in edge-affected habitats, we test the hypothesis that the specialized structure of plant-herbivore networks collapse in forest edges, resulting in lower modularity and herbivore specialization. Despite no differences in the number of species and interactions, the network structure presented marked differences between forest edges and interior. Herbivore specialization, modularity and number of modules were significantly higher in forest interior than edge-affected habitats. When compared to a random null model, two (22.2%) and eight (88.8%) networks were significantly modular in forest edge and interior, respectively. The loss of specificity and modularity in plant-herbivore networks in forest edges may be related to the loss of important functions, such as density-dependent control of superior plant competitors, which is ultimately responsible for the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Our results support previous warnings that focusing on traditional community measures only (e.g. species diversity) may overlook important modifications in species interactions and ecosystem functioning.