• Ficus;
  • gene flow;
  • paternity analysis;
  • pollen dispersal;
  • tropical forest

Abstract. The mutualistic interaction of figs with their species-specific wasp pollinators and the role of figs as ‘keystone’ plant resources in tropical communities has received substantial attention from both plant and animal ecologists. Despite this focus on the reproductive biology of figs, the minute size of the wasps has effectively precluded our ability to monitor patterns of wasp dispersal and fig mating relationships in natural forest habitats. In this paper we use genetic markers and genealogy reconstruction techniques to examine the breeding structure of populations of four strangler fig species occurring in central Panama. The natural history of figs facilitates the genetic analysis of full-sib progeny arrays from which the genotypes of successful pollen donors can be reconstructed precisely. Paternity reconstruction in the four study species reveals that individual flowering trees may routinely receive pollen from numerous donors despite characteristically low densities of co-flowering individuals. These data indicate not only that breeding populations of these figs are larger than the minimum critical sizes predicted to be necessary to support populations of their species-specific pollinators, but are more extensive in size and area than has been described for any plant species yet examined. Further, the fig wasps are shown to be efficient agents of long-distance dispersal, routinely moving up to 10 km between flowering trees. In accord with the potential for substantial long-distance gene flow and large effective population sizes, ten of eleven species of Panamanian figs assayed were found to maintain exceptionally high levels of genetic variation within their populations. Combined with other reports of occasional long-distance dispersal, the results of this study suggest that fig wasps may be more effective at colonizing isolated fig populations than previously thought.