Wildlife differentially affect tree and liana regeneration in a tropical forest: An 18‐year study of experimental terrestrial defaunation versus artificially abundant herbivores
Hunting and land use change modify native herbivore abundances and cause cascading effects in natural ecosystems. The outcomes for vegetation depend on changes to specific plant–animal interactions, such as seed dispersal or predation, or physical disturbances.
We experimentally manipulated terrestrial wildlife populations in a primary lowland forest in Malaysia over an 18‐year period (1996–2014) to understand how artificially high or low animal densities affect tree and liana regeneration. Our study site retains a diverse wildlife community and artificially high densities of native wild pigs (Sus scrofa) that are sustained by crop raiding in distant oil palm plantations. We used fencing that excluded terrestrial animals >1 kg to experimentally simulate conditions similar to those in defaunated forests. These two treatments – abnormally high pig abundances and megafauna loss from hunting – represent common outcomes in disturbed Southeast Asian forests and are characteristic of many forests globally. We focused on trees and lianas because they are the two dominant woody life‐forms in tropical forests and crucial determinants of forest structure and function.
We found that liana sapling abundances (30–100 cm height) increased by 86% in unfenced control plots with wildlife but were stable in exclosures. In contrast, tree abundances did not change in unfenced control plots but increased by 83% in exclosures without wildlife. Evidence of scaring on surviving stems suggested that these inverted outcomes were driven by selective use of tree saplings for wild pig nests. Lianas may also have greater tolerance to wildlife disturbances like nest building. By the end of the study, lianas comprised 38% of all saplings in unfenced controls but just 14% in exclosures.
Synthesis and applications. We conclude that artificially abundant wildlife, such as crop‐raiding wild pigs, may shift tropical forest understories towards lianas while defaunation may shift it towards trees. These results highlight that ecological cascades from hunting or land use change can alter plant functional types and reshape to long‐term patterns of forest succession and change. Managing unnatural wild boar populations may be required to conserve native plant communities in both their native and exotic ranges.