Functional differences within a guild of tropical mammalian frugivores
Many plants interact with groups of mutualist pollinators and seed dispersers. A key issue for both basic ecology and conservation is whether the different species within these guilds of mutualist animals are functionally equivalent. Comparing the relative effects of sympatric mutualists is important for understanding the evolution of multispecies mutualisms and for predicting mutualism stability in the face of anthropogenic change. However, empirical comparisons of the population-level impacts of mutualist animals on their host plant are rare, particularly for seed dispersal mutualisms in species-rich ecosystems. We compared the influence of three seed-dispersing tropical mammals, lar gibbons (Hylobates lar), sambar deer (Rusa unicolor), and red muntjac deer (Muntiacus muntjak), on the demography of a shared host tree in Thailand, Choerospondias axillaris (Anacardiaceae). Sambar and muntjac dispersed far more C. axillaris seeds than did gibbons. While sambar deposited many seeds under female tree canopies, muntjac were the only disperser to move seeds to open microhabitats, where C. axillaris seed germination, seedling survival, and initial growth are enhanced. Using stage-based population models, we assessed how disperser-specific seed dispersal, variation in the frequency of canopy gap formation, and their interaction influenced the potential population growth of C. axillaris. Large differences in dispersal quantity and small differences in dispersal quality among sambar and gibbons resulted in similar and negligible impacts on the tree's population dynamics. Muntjac, by taking some of the seeds to open microhabitats, are projected to have a greater positive impact on C. axillaris demography than either sambar or gibbons. Model comparisons of population-level species impacts may allow us to predict which ecological interactions are at risk from loss of critical species.