Climate Change Threatens a Fig-Frugivore Mutualism at its Drier, Western Range Margin

K David Mackay, C L Gross

Abstract


Ficus rubiginosa (the Rusty Fig; Moraceae) provides a keystone food resource for a diverse array of vertebrate frugivores in eastern Australia. These frugivores, in turn, provide vital seed-dispersal services to the fig. The aims of this study were to investigate impacts of population size and climatic variation on avian-frugivore visitation to F. rubiginosa at the extreme western, drier margin of the species’ range. Eighty-two bird species visited F. rubiginosa trees in this three-year study. Twenty-nine species were frugivores or omnivorous frugivore/insectivores. The number of ripe fruit in a tree had the greatest positive influence on frugivore visitation (p < 0.0001). Fig-population size influenced the assemblage of frugivore species visiting trees but not the number of frugivores or the rate of frugivore visitation. The number of ripe fruit in a tree was negatively associated with declines in rainfall, to total losses of standing crops through dieback and lack of crop initiation. Predicted long-term declines in rainfall across this region of eastern Australia and increased incidence of drought will lead to reduced crop sizes in F. rubiginosa and likely reduce the viability of local populations of this keystone fig. This will threaten the mutualism between F. rubiginosa and frugivores across the region.

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