Frugivore diversity increases frugivory rates along a large elevational gradient

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The effect of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning is increasingly well understood, but it has mainly been studied in small-scale experiments of plant-based ecosystem functions. In contrast, the relevance of biodiversity for animal-mediated ecosystem functions like seed dispersal still poses an important gap in ecological knowledge. In particular, it is little understood how avian diversity affects frugivory rates, one of the most important parameters of seed dispersal rates, along large environmental gradients. Even less is known about the environmental context dependence of the frugivore–frugivory relationship. We used artificial fruits to analyze experimentally how the abundance and richness of three avian frugivore guilds (with incrementally more stringent classifications of frugivory) contributed to frugivory rates across 13 different habitat types along an elevational gradient from 870 to 4550 m a.s.l. at Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. We further investigated how environmental context, in terms of local vegetation structure and natural fruit availability, modified the relationship between frugivores and frugivory rates. Our results demonstrate that the positive effect of avian diversity on frugivory rates holds along a large elevational gradient. We found marked differences in frugivory rates among the 13 habitat types, which were strongly related to the abundance and richness of obligate frugivorous birds. Vegetation structure had no significant effect on frugivory rates. An intermediate abundance of natural fruits enhanced frugivory rates, but this effect did not alter the positive frugivore–frugivory relationship. These results emphasize the fundamental importance of obligate frugivore diversity for frugivory rates and suggest that the positive effect of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning holds along large environmental gradients.

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