Global change – such as climate change, habitat fragmentations or the extinction of large-bodied animals , such as giant sloths, may force species to adapt or go extinct. In particular, plants with very large fruits that rely on large-bodied animals for the dispersal of their seeds may face a problem: can they adapt quick enough, or will global change drive them ultimately to extinction?
During the last 2.6 million years, Latin American palms with the largest fruits seem to have gone extinct with increasing rates, whereas large-fruited palms in South-East Asian regions seem to be adapting by producing smaller fruits. Small enough to be eaten and dispersed by birds and bats. These were the results of Onstein and her team which consisted of researchers from the Netherlands, UK, France, Sweden and Denmark. They collected data for more than 2000 palm species across the globe.
Fruits need to become smaller
The absence of certain fruit-eaters, such as large hornbills, elephants or giant tortoises, may require plants with large, ‘megafaunal’ fruits to evolve ‘new’ fruits. This is similar to the selection by humans for fruits (such as papayas or mangos) to become bigger and bigger. However, instead of becoming bigger, these fruits naturally have to become smaller, to adapt to the small-bodied animals that are still there to disperse their seeds. A lack of dispersal may, alternatively, lead to their extinction.
‘Although it is difficult to see the long-term results of current global change, global change has been happening in the deep past as well, especially during the last 2,6 million years,’ says Onstein. ‘We therefore use the past as our experimental set-up to understand how current and future global change may affect these palms with very large fruits.’
Onstein thinks that the dramatic changes in climate, habitat fragmentation and megafauna extinctions that have happened in Latin America over the last 2.6 million years may have been the cause of the increasing extinction of palms. In South-East Asian regions, on the other hand, palm dispersal by flying animals such as birds and bats may have been important to escape the dramatic effects of global change. Palms seem to have had enough time to adapt to these flying animals by evolving smaller fruits.
The future of palms
How does the future of these palms with big fruits look like? There are still at least 220 palm species worldwide that bear these massive fruits larger than 4 cm in length. ‘Large-fruited plants have it increasingly difficult to survive in our human dominated world’, says Daniel Kissling, associate professor and senior author of the study. ‘The loss of large animals in tropical rainforests, e.g. due to hunting, illegal trade, and habitat loss, has a massive effect on tropical biodiversity. It leads to a reduced seed dispersal and less regeneration of these tall and massive plants. This has even the potential to significantly erode the carbon storage of tropical rainforest because large-fruited trees also store most carbon.’
The increasing human pressure and hunting of the still existing megafauna will certainly have cascading effects on the plants they feed on. Whether all palms will be able to adapt to the loss of large-bodied animal dispersers has to be seen.
Onstein RE, Baker WJ, Couvreur TLP, Faurby S, Herrera-Alsina L, Svenning J-C, Kissling WD. ( 2018 ). To adapt or go extinct? The fate of megafaunal palm fruits under past global change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 285, 20180882.