Functionally specialised birds respond flexibly to seasonal changes in fruit availability.J Anim Ecol 2017; 86(4):800-811JA
Interactions between resource and consumer species result in complex ecological networks. The overall structure of these networks is often stable in space and time, but little is known about the temporal stability of the functional roles of consumer species in these networks. We used a trait-based approach to investigate whether consumers (frugivorous birds) show similar degrees of functional specialisation on resources (plants) in ecological networks across seasons. We additionally tested whether closely related bird species have similar degrees of functional specialisation and whether birds that are functionally specialised on specific resource types within a season are flexible in switching to other resource types in other seasons. We analysed four seasonal replicates of two species-rich plant-frugivore networks from the tropical Andes. To quantify fruit preferences of frugivorous birds, we projected their interactions with plants into a multidimensional plant trait space. To measure functional specialisation of birds, we calculated a species' functional niche breadth (the extent of seasonal plant trait space utilised by a particular bird) and functional originality (the extent to which a bird species' fruit preference functionally differs from those of other species in a seasonal network). We additionally calculated functional flexibility, i.e. the ability of bird species to change their fruit preference across seasons in response to variation in plant resources. Functional specialisation of bird species varied more among species than across seasons, and phylogenetically similar bird species showed similar degrees of functional niche breadth (phylogenetic signal λ = 0·81) and functional originality (λ = 0·89). Additionally, we found that birds with high functional flexibility across seasons had narrow functional niche breadth and high functional originality per season, suggesting that birds that are seasonally specialised on particular resources are most flexible in switching to other fruit resources across seasons. The high flexibility of functionally specialised bird species to switch seasonally to other resources challenges the view that consumer species rely on functionally similar resources throughout the year. This flexibility of consumer species may be an important, but widely neglected mechanism that could potentially stabilise consumer-resource networks in response to human disturbance and environmental change.