Wildlife disturbances as a source of conspecific negative density-dependent mortality in tropical trees

Large vertebrates are rarely considered important drivers of conspecific negative density-dependent mortality (CNDD) in plants because they are generalist consumers. However, disturbances like trampling and nesting also cause plant mortality, and their impact on plant diversity depends on the spatial overlap between wildlife habitat preferences and plant species composition. We studied the impact of native wildlife on a hyperdiverse tree community in Malaysia. Pigs (Sus scrofa) are abnormally abundant at the site due to food subsidies in nearby farmland and they construct birthing nests using hundreds of tree saplings. We tagged 34 950 tree saplings in a 25 ha plot during an initial census and assessed the source mortality by recovering tree tags from pig nests (n = 1672 pig-induced deaths). At the stand scale, pigs nested in flat dry habitats, and at the local neighbourhood scale, they nested within clumps of saplings, both of which are intuitive for safe and efficient nest building. At the stand scale, flat dry habitats contained higher sapling densities and higher proportions of common species, so pig nesting increased the weighted average species evenness across habitats. At the neighbourhood scale, pig-induced sapling mortality was associated with higher heterospecific and especially conspecific sapling densities. Tree species have clumped distributions due to dispersal limitation and habitat filtering, so pig disturbances in sapling clumps indirectly caused CNDD. As a result, Pielou species evenness in 400 m2 quadrats increased 105% more in areas with pig-induced deaths than areas without disturbances. Wildlife induced CNDD and this supported tree species evenness, but they also drove a 62% decline in sapling densities from 1996 to 2010, which is unsustainable. We suspect pig nesting is an important feature shaping tree composition throughout the region. 

Matthew Scott Luskin, Daniel J. Johnson, Kalan Ickes, Tze Leong Yao, & Stuart J. Davies
Proceedings of the Royal Society B