The influence of habitat fragmentation on multiple plant–animal interactions and plant reproduction

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: G. A. Fox.

Abstract

Despite broad recognition that habitat loss represents the greatest threat to the world's biodiversity, a mechanistic understanding of how habitat loss and associated fragmentation affect ecological systems has proven remarkably challenging. The challenge stems from the multiple interdependent ways that landscapes change following fragmentation and the ensuing complex impacts on populations and communities of interacting species. We confronted these challenges by evaluating how fragmentation affects individual plants through interactions with animals, across five herbaceous species native to longleaf pine savannas. We created a replicated landscape experiment that provides controlled tests of three major fragmentation effects (patch isolation, patch shape [i.e., edge-to-area ratio], and distance to edge), established experimental founder populations of the five species to control for spatial distributions and densities of individual plants, and employed structural equation modeling to evaluate the effects of fragmentation on plant reproductive output and the degree to which these impacts are mediated through altered herbivory, pollination, or pre-dispersal seed predation. Across species, the most consistent response to fragmentation was a reduction in herbivory. Herbivory, however, had little impact on plant reproductive output, and thus we found little evidence for any resulting benefit to plants in fragments. In contrast, fragmentation rarely impacted pollination or pre-dispersal seed predation, but both of these interactions had strong and consistent impacts on plant reproductive output. As a result, our models robustly predicted plant reproductive output (r2 = 0.52–0.70), yet due to the weak effects of fragmentation on pollination and pre-dispersal seed predation, coupled with the weak effect of herbivory on plant reproduction, the effects of fragmentation on reproductive output were generally small in magnitude and inconsistent. This work provides mechanistic insight into landscape-scale variation in plant reproductive success, the relative importance of plant–animal interactions for structuring these dynamics, and the nuanced nature of how habitat fragmentation can affect populations and communities of interacting species.

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