Birds in ecological networks: insights from bird-plant mutualistic interactions
Authors: Daniel GARCÍA
Published: Volume 63.1, June 2016. Pages 151-180.
Research in ecological networks has developed impressively in recent years. A significant part of this growth has been achieved using networks to represent the complexity of mutualistic interactions between species of birds and plants, such as pollination and seed dispersal. Bird-plant networks are built from matrices whose cells account for the field-sampled magnitudes of interaction (e.g. the number of plant fruits consumed by birds) in bird-plant species pairs. The comparative study of mutualistic networks evidences three general patterns in network structure: they are highly heterogeneous (many species having just a few interactions, but a few species being highly connected), nested (with specialists interacting with subsets of species with which generalists interact) and composed of weak and asymmetric relationships between birds and plants. This type of structure emerges from a set of ecological and evolutionary mechanisms accounting for the probabilistic role of species abundances and the deterministic role of species traits, often constrained by species phylogenies. Although bearing structural generalities, bird-plant networks are variable in space and time at very different scales: from habitat to latitudinal and biogeographical gradients, and from seasonal to inter-annual contrasts. They are also highly sensitive to human impact, being especially affected by habitat loss and fragmentation, defaunation and biological invasions. Further research on bird-plant mutualistic networks should: 1) apply wide conceptual frameworks which integrate the mechanisms of interaction and the responses of species to environmental gradients, 2) enlarge the ecological scale of networks across interaction types and animal groups, and 3) account for the ultimate functional (i.e. demographic) effects of trophic interactions.