Disproportionately large ecological role of a recently mass-culled flying fox in native forests of an oceanic island

F. B.V. Florens, C. Baider, V. Marday, G. M.N. Martin, Z. Zmanay, R. Oleksy, G. Krivek, C. E. Vincenot, D. Strasberg, T. Kingston

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Abstract

Human-wildlife conflicts pose a growing threat to many species worldwide and require increasingly innovative and multi-disciplinary resolutions. Because of their apparent simplicity and political appeal, lethal approaches like culling are often favoured, decisions to cull are typically poorly supported by scientific evidence and the limitations and drawbacks of culls minimised. As natural habitats decline and fruit crop production expands, fruit-eating bats in the Old World (family Pteropodidae) are increasingly in conflict with fruit farmers. This conflict is exemplified on Mauritius where the government has implemented two mass culls of a threatened flying fox (Pteropus niger) since 2015 in response to fruit-grower concerns. The culls and illegal hunting reduced the bat population by >50%. In this context, we sought to investigate the ecological role and service provided by the targeted flying fox through seed dissemination to gauge what may be lost as the species becomes rarer or extinct. We randomly sampled the woody native community in six of the best-preserved moist-to-wet native forests of Mauritius using 90 plots of 100 m2 each and identified and measured the stem size of all woody plants ≥1 cm in diameter. Species were classified by whether their fruits occur in the diet of the flying fox in an exclusive, confirmed or likely manner and we assumed that fruit consumption is equivalent to potential seed dissemination. The relative importance of these three categories to the total woody plant community was then quantified as the proportion of species richness, stem density and basal area (as a surrogate of biomass) that they represent. We also investigated whether the main traits of species (seed size, fruit size, and maximum stem diameter) vary among bat-dispersal categories and differ from those of species whose fruits are not currently known to be eaten by the flying fox. On average, although about a quarter of the native woody species (24.6%) have fruits confirmed as eaten and seeds dispersed by the flying fox, these species comprise about half (53.1%) of the stems sampled and the majority (63.1%) of the basal area of native woody plant in the island's native forests. About half of that latter biomass figure comprises species for which the flying fox is the exclusive native vertebrate frugivore and seed disperser. Plants disseminated by the flying fox are typically large trees with large fruit and seeds. These trees are often key components of the canopy, therefore fulfilling structural engineer roles that provide resources and conditions for the survival of many forest species. The flying fox plays a disproportionally large ecological role in maintaining forest structure and biodiversity in the long-term. Consequently, lethal approaches to the conflict with fruit-farmers threaten not only an endangered species, but ecological processes central to the viability of native forests. Our findings highlight the importance of including the ecological costs of culling in decision-making processes intended to resolve human-wildlife conflicts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85-93
Number of pages9
JournalJournal for Nature Conservation
Volume40
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2017

Keywords

  • Culling
  • Fruit bat
  • Human-wildlife conflict
  • Mauritius
  • Pteropus
  • Seed dissemination

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    Florens, F. B. V., Baider, C., Marday, V., Martin, G. M. N., Zmanay, Z., Oleksy, R., Krivek, G., Vincenot, C. E., Strasberg, D., & Kingston, T. (2017). Disproportionately large ecological role of a recently mass-culled flying fox in native forests of an oceanic island. Journal for Nature Conservation, 40, 85-93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnc.2017.10.002