Do frugivorous birds assist rainforest succession in weed dominated oldfield regrowth of subtropical Australia?
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Exotic plants often form the first woody vegetation that grows on abandoned farmland. If this vegetation attracts vertebrate frugivores which disperse the seeds of native plants, then native plants may recruit to such oldfield sites. However, there is debate about the extent to which exotic vegetation assists or suppresses the regeneration of native plants, and about its effects on faunal biodiversity. These issues were investigated in subtropical eastern Australia, where rainforests were cleared for agriculture in the nineteenth century, and where regrowth dominated by camphor laurel (Cinnamomum camphora, an exotic, fleshy-fruited tree) has become common on former agricultural land. The study assessed the assemblages of frugivorous birds, and the recruitment of rainforest plants, at 24 patches of camphor laurel regrowth. The patches were used by nearly all frugivorous birds associated with subtropical rainforest. Many of these birds (16 of 34 species) are considered to have a medium to high potential to disperse the seeds of rainforest plants, and eight of these were abundant and widespread in regrowth patches. Of 208 recorded plant species, 181 were native to local rainforest. The ratio of native to exotic species was higher amongst tree recruits than adult trees, both for numbers of species and individuals. Among native tree recruits, 79% of 75 species, and 93% of 1928 individuals, were potentially dispersed by birds. These recruits included many late-successional species, and there were relatively more individuals of late-successional, bird-dispersed native species amongst recruits than adult trees. The species richness, but not the abundance, of both frugivorous birds and of bird-dispersed rainforest trees decreased with distance from major rainforest remnants. Camphor laurel regrowth provides habitat for rainforest birds and creates conditions suitable for the regeneration of native rainforest plants on abandoned farmland. Careful management of regrowth dominated by fleshy-fruited exotic invasive trees can provide an opportunity for broadscale reforestation in extensively-cleared landscapes.
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