High-quality seed dispersal by fruit-eating fishes in Amazonian floodplain habitats.Oecologia 2009; 161(2):279-90O
Seed dispersal is a critical stage in the life history of plants. It determines the initial pattern of juvenile distribution, and can influence community dynamics and the evolutionary trajectories of individual species. Vertebrate frugivores are the primary vector of seed dispersal in tropical forests; however, most studies of seed dispersal focus on birds, bats and monkeys. Nevertheless, South America harbors at least 200 species of frugivorous fishes, which move into temporarily flooded habitats during lengthy flood seasons and consume fruits that fall into the water; and yet, we know remarkably little about the quality of seed dispersal they effect. We investigated the seed dispersal activities of two species of large-bodied, commercially important fishes (Colossoma macropomum and Piaractus brachypomus, Characidae) over 3 years in Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve (Peru). We assessed the diet of these fishes during the flood season, conducted germination trials with seeds collected from digestive tracts, and quantified fruit availability. In the laboratory, we fed fruits to captive Colossoma, quantified the proportion of seeds defecated by adult and juvenile fish, and used these seeds in additional germination experiments. Our results indicate that Colossoma and Piaractus disperse large quantities of seeds from up to 35% of the trees and lianas that fruit during the flood season. Additionally, these seeds can germinate after floodwaters recede. Overexploitation has reduced the abundance of our focal fish species, as well as changed the age structure of populations. Moreover, older fish are more effective seed dispersers than smaller, juvenile fish. Overfishing, therefore, likely selects for the poorest seed dispersers, thus disrupting an ancient interaction between seeds and their dispersal agents.