Defoliation effects on seed dispersal and seedling recruitment in a tropical rain forest understorey palm

Authors

  • Jeffrey van Lent,

    1. Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Morelia, Michoacán, México
    2. Section of Ecology and Biodiversity, Institute of Environmental Biology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
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  • Juan C. Hernández-Barrios,

    1. Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Morelia, Michoacán, México
    2. Section of Ecology and Biodiversity, Institute of Environmental Biology, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
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  • Niels P. R. Anten,

    1. Centre for Crop System Analysis, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands
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  • Miguel Martínez-Ramos

    Corresponding author
    1. Centro de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Morelia, Michoacán, México
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Summary

  1. Assessing the demographic effects of leaf area losses in perennial plants is important to determine population resilience to natural and anthropogenic disturbances. Yet, while impacts of defoliation on vital rates of adult plants have been well documented, consequences for seed dispersal and seedling recruitment have been barely explored.

  2. Here, we assessed the effects of defoliation on fruit production, fruit/seed size, seed dispersal and seedling recruitment in populations of Chamaedorea ernesti-augustii, a tropical rain forest, understorey palm from Mesoamerica, whose leaves are exploited as a highly valuable non-timber forest product (NTFP).

  3. Fruit size and seed production were quantified in mature palms that were subjected to 0% (control), 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% experimental removal of standing leaves, applied every 6 months over 2 years. Seed dispersal by birds and gravity, and seed predation by small vertebrates on the ground were also quantified. Rates of seedling recruitment were recorded in non-defoliated and ‘sterile’ populations (75% sustained defoliation and periodical removal of all produced fruits). Finally, a stochastic model was used to quantify the overall effect of defoliation on seedlings recruited from locally (i.e. dispersed by gravity) and immigrant produced seeds (i.e. dispersed by birds).

  4. Increasing defoliation strongly reduced seed production. The probability of bird dispersal was positively correlated with fruit/seed size. Isolated (i.e. bird-dispersed) seeds endured lower predation rates than grouped (i.e. gravity-dispersed) ones. Modelling showed that seedling recruitment rate is severely reduced in highly defoliated populations due to a strong decline in the number of seedlings coming from local seed sources. Surrounding non-defoliated populations could partly compensate for this effect via seedlings coming from immigrant seeds.

  5. Synthesis. Chronic and intense defoliation negatively affects seed production and dispersal, which reduces the probability of seedling recruitment. Such effects may have a profound impact on the dynamics and genetic variability of populations, which should be taken into account when considering the effects of natural defoliation and sustainability of leaf-harvesting regimes.

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