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SUMMARY

In spite of a considerable literature on fruit-eating, the general evolutionary implications of fruit as a source of food for birds have been neglected. A preliminary attempt is made to explore the evolutionary and ecological consequences of fruit-eating, considered as a mutual interaction between parent plant and dispersal agent.

The relationship considered is that obtaining between fleshy fruits and the “legitimate” fruit-eating birds which digest the fleshy part of the fruit and void the seed intact. Evolutionary aspects of seed-eating are also briefly discussed.

The “strategies” adopted by fruits for dispersal by birds result in the production of abundant food supplies which are easy of access and exploitable by many species of birds. By contrast, the predation of birds on insects leads to a heterogeneous, sparse and cryptic food supply, to exploit which many different hunting techniques are necessary. Two important evolutionary developments in birds are attributed to these differences in food supply: there tend to be more species in families of insectivorous than of frugivorous birds, and lek behaviour in tropical forest has evolved in predominantly frugivorous birds.

The seasonal succession of fruits in temperate latitudes is discussed, and contrasted with the situation in the tropics, using examples from Europe and Trinidad. In general, the succession of ripe fruits in Europe seems to be adapted to the seasonal shifts of the bird populations, and the more nutritious fruits tend to have a more southerly distribution and to ripen later than the more succulent fruits. In the tropics the distinction between nutritious and succulent fruits seems to be largely one of habitat.

The constant succession of ripe fruits throughout the year in the tropics probably depends on competition for dispersal by frugivorous birds, which thus ensure the maintenance of their own food supply. This may be regarded as a symbiosis at the level of the ecosystem.