The Overlooked Biodiversity of Flower-Visiting Invertebrates
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Estimates suggest that perhaps 40% of all invertebrate species are found in tropical rainforest canopies. Extrapolations of total diversity and food web analyses have been based almost exclusively on species inhabiting the foliage, under the assumption that foliage samples are representative of the entire canopy. We examined the validity of this assumption by comparing the density of invertebrates and the species richness of beetles across three canopy microhabitats (mature leaves, new leaves and flowers) on a one hectare plot in an Australian tropical rainforest. Specifically, we tested two hypotheses: 1) canopy invertebrate density and species richness are directly proportional to the amount of resource available; and 2) canopy microhabitats represent discrete resources that are utilised by their own specialised invertebrate communities. We show that flowers in the canopy support invertebrate densities that are ten to ten thousand times greater than on the nearby foliage when expressed on a per-unit resource biomass basis. Furthermore, species-level analyses of the beetle fauna revealed that flowers support a unique and remarkably rich fauna compared to foliage, with very little species overlap between microhabitats. We reject the hypothesis that the insect fauna on mature foliage is representative of the greater canopy community even though mature foliage comprises a very large proportion of canopy plant biomass. Although the significance of the evolutionary relationship between flowers and insects is well known with respect to plant reproduction, less is known about the importance of flowers as resources for tropical insects. Consequently, we suggest that this constitutes a more important piece of the 'diversity jigsaw puzzle' than has been previously recognised and could alter our understanding of the evolution of plant-herbivore interactions and food web dynamics, and provide a better foundation for accurately estimating global species richness.
© 2012 Wardhaugh et al. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License CCAL. (http://www.plos.org/journals/license.html)