Functional Extinction of Birds Drives Rapid Evolutionary Changes in Seed Size

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Science  31 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6136, pp. 1086-1090
DOI: 10.1126/science.1233774

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The Birds and the Seeds

When species are lost from ecosystems through local extinction, the pattern of ecological interactions changes. Galetti et al. (p. 1086) show how the loss of large fruit-eating birds from tropical forest fragments in Brazil affects the reduction of seed size in a palm species. A data set was compiled that consisted of >9000 seeds measured in 22 populations over a large area of Atlantic rainforest, including seven areas where large-seed dispersers (toucans, cracids, and large cotingas) were extinct and 15 areas where they are still common.


Local extinctions have cascading effects on ecosystem functions, yet little is known about the potential for the rapid evolutionary change of species in human-modified scenarios. We show that the functional extinction of large-gape seed dispersers in the Brazilian Atlantic forest is associated with the consistent reduction of the seed size of a keystone palm species. Among 22 palm populations, areas deprived of large avian frugivores for several decades present smaller seeds than nondefaunated forests, with negative consequences for palm regeneration. Coalescence and phenotypic selection models indicate that seed size reduction most likely occurred within the past 100 years, associated with human-driven fragmentation. The fast-paced defaunation of large vertebrates is most likely causing unprecedented changes in the evolutionary trajectories and community composition of tropical forests.

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