How human disturbance of tropical rainforest can influence avian fruit removal


  • Kara L. Lefevre,

  • F. Helen Rodd

K. L. Lefevre ( and F. Helen Rodd, Dept of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ. of Toronto, 25 Harbord Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5S 3G5, Canada. Present address for KLL: Dépt des sciences du bois et de la forêt, Univ. Laval, 2405 rue de la Terrasse, Québec, QC, G1V 0A6, Canada.


Fruit consumption by birds is an important ecological interaction that contributes to seed dispersal in tropical rainforests. In this field experiment, we asked whether moderate human disturbance alters patterns of avian frugivory: we measured fruit removal by birds in the lower montane rainforest of Tobago, West Indies, using artificial infructescences made with natural fruits from two common woody plants of the forest understory (Psychotria spp., Rubiaceae). Displays were mounted simultaneously in three forest habitats chosen to represent a gradient of increasing habitat disturbance (primary, intermediate and disturbed), caused by subsistence land use adjacent to a protected forest reserve. We measured the numbers of fruits removed and the effect of fruit position on the likelihood of removal, along with the abundances of all fruits and fruit-eating birds at the study sites. Fruit removal was highly variable and there was not a significant difference in removal rate among forest habitats; however, the trend was for higher rates of removal from displays in primary forest. Canopy cover, natural fruit availability, and frugivore abundance were not good predictors of fruit removal. Birds preferred more accessible fruits (those proximal to the perch) in all habitats, but in disturbed forest, there was a tendency for distal fruits to be chosen more frequently than in the other forest types. One possible explanation for this pattern is that birds in disturbed forests were larger than those in other habitats, and hence were better able to reach the distal fruits. Coupled with differences in bird community composition among the forest types, this suggests that different suites of birds were removing fruit in primary versus disturbed forest. As frugivore species have different effectiveness as seed dispersers, the among-habitat differences in fruit removal patterns that we observed could have important implications for plant species experiencing disturbance; these possible implications include altered amounts of seed deposition and seedling recruitment in Tobago's tropical rainforest.