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Ecology. 2006 Jan;87(1):144-50.

Habitat fragmentation and effects of herbivore (howler monkey) abundances on bird species richness.

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Departament of Biology, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA.


Habitat fragmentation can alter herbivore abundances, potentially causing changes in the plant community that can propagate through the food web and eventually influence other important taxonomic groups such as birds. Here we test the relationship between the density of red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) and bird species richness on a large set of recently isolated land-bridge islands in Lago Guri, Venezuela (n = 29 islands). Several of these islands host relict populations of howler monkeys at densities up to more than 30 times greater than those on the mainland. These "hyperabundant" herbivores previously have been shown to have a strong positive influence on aboveground plant productivity. We predicted that this should lead to a positive, indirect effect of howler monkey density on bird species richness. After accounting for passive sampling (the tendency for species richness to be positively associated with island area, regardless of differences in habitat quality) we found a significant positive correlation between howler monkey density and bird species richness. A path analysis incorporating data on tree growth rates from a subset of islands (n = 9) supported the hypothesis that the effect of howler monkeys on the resident bird communities is indirect and is mediated through changes in plant productivity and habitat quality. These results highlight the potential for disparate taxonomic groups to be related through indirect interactions and trophic cascades.

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