Linking fruit traits to variation in predispersal vertebrate seed predation, insect seed predation, and pathogen attack

Noelle G. Beckman, Utah State University
Helene C. Muller-Landau, Smithsonian Institute


The importance of vertebrates, invertebrates, and pathogens for plant communities has long been recognized, but their absolute and relative importance in early recruitment of multiple coexisting tropical plant species has not been quantified. Further, little is known about the relationship of fruit traits to seed mortality due to natural enemies in tropical plants. To investigate the influences of vertebrates, invertebrates, and pathogens on reproduction of seven canopy plant species varying in fruit traits, we quantified reductions in fruit development and seed germination due to vertebrates, invertebrates, and fungal pathogens through experimental removal of these enemies using canopy exclosures, insecticide, and fungicide, respectively. We also measured morphological fruit traits hypothesized to mediate interactions of plants with natural enemies of seeds. Vertebrates, invertebrates, and fungi differentially affected predispersal seed mortality depending on the plant species. Fruit morphology explained some variation among species; species with larger fruit and less physical protection surrounding seeds exhibited greater negative effects of fungi on fruit development and germination and experienced reduced seed survival integrated over fruit development and germination in response to vertebrates. Within species, variation in seed size also contributed to variation in natural enemy effects on seed viability. Further, seedling growth was higher for seeds that developed in vertebrate exclosures for Anacardium excelsum and under the fungicide treatment for Castilla elastica, suggesting that predispersal effects of natural enemies may carry through to the seedling stage. This is the first experimental test of the relative effects of vertebrates, invertebrates, and pathogens on seed survival in the canopy. This study motivates further investigation to determine the generality of our results for plant communities. If there is strong variation in natural enemy attack among species related to differences in fruit morphology, then quantification of fruit traits will aid in predicting the outcomes of interactions between plants and their natural enemies. This is particularly important in tropical forests, where high species diversity makes it logistically impossible to study every plant life history stage of every species.