The interplay of habitat and seed size on the shift in species composition in a fragmented Afromontane forest landscape: Implications for the management of forest restoration
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NamePhD in Ecology
The Cameroon Highlands that run along the Cameroon-Nigeria border are an important source of biodiversity. Not only are they rich in species and high in endemics, but biota from West Africa have not been studied as extensively relative to other parts of the Afrotropics, or the tropics in general. Threatening these rare and diverse habitats is anthropogenic pressure, which fragments forests and changes local animal communities. This thesis wished to address the impact of humans on seed dispersal and recruitment processes on selected tree species in forests on the Mambilla Plateau - a montane region in Nigeria's north-east. Research was conducted at Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve, a conservation area established by the Nigerian Montane Forest Project. The reserve comprises a moderately-large forest patch (Ngel Nyaki Forest) and many small riparian fragments embedded in a grassland matrix. Cattle grazing and burning of this grassland are major threats to the survival of forest in this area.Hunting of local wildlife for bushmeat is also of concern, considering many of the region’s large-mammalian fauna are now locally extirpated (e.g. elephants) or at low abundances (many primate species). Loss of large-bodied frugivorous species has the potential to negatively impact the recruitment of large-seeded tree species that solely rely on them as seed dispersers. In this study, the ability for scatterhoarding rodents to act as surrogate dispersers for large-seeded species is tested. While much research has been carried out on secondary rodent dispersal in the Neotropics, work in the Afrotropics is still in its infancy. Because the outcome of plant-rodent interactions (i.e. predated or dispersed) may vary with season, habitat, or traits of the seed species in question, a number of experiments were established to quantify how local rodents at Ngel Nyaki may or may not be acting as effective dispersers. Additionally, the benefits of rodent dispersal were examined by creating an experiment that simulated secondary dispersal on seedling recruitment. The results of this study demonstrated that rodents can act as effective dispersers in Afromontane forests, but this is influenced by habitat, seasonal abundance of resources, and palatability of seed species. Furthermore, it was demonstrated that burial of seeds by rodents can increase the establishment probability of a seed by protecting it from removal by other rodents. However, while rodents play a strong driver of seed survival, it was also demonstrated that seedling mortality factors (such as herbivory) can also be heavy filters to seedling success. It is hoped that the results of this study will help to inform better management decisions and understand how the composition of the forest might change in the future.