Frugivory-related traits promote speciation of tropical palms

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 119031911 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0348-7
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Animal-mediated seed dispersal by frugivorous birds and mammals is central to the ecology and functioning of ecosystems, but whether and how frugivory-related traits have affected plant speciation remains little explored. Fruit size is directly linked to plant dispersal capacity and therefore influences gene flow and genetic divergence of plant populations. Using a global species-level phylogeny with comprehensive data on fruit sizes and plant species distributions, we test whether fruit size has affected speciation rates of palms (Arecaceae), a plant family characteristic of tropical rainforests. Globally, the results reveal that palms with small fruit sizes have increased speciation rates compared with those with large (megafaunal) fruits. Speciation of small-fruited palms is particularly high in the understory of tropical rainforests in the New World, and on islands in the Old World. This suggests that frugivory-related traits in combination with geography and the movement behaviour of frugivores can influence the speciation of fleshy-fruited plants.

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We thank H. Balslev, A. Barfod, A. Blach-Overgaard, F. Borchsenius, J. Dransfield, W. Eiserhardt and M. J. Sanín for discussions about palm biology and J. Dransfield,A. Barfod and A. J. Henderson for the use of pictures for Fig. 1. We thank J. Ollerton for constructive comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. W.D.K. was supported by the University of Amsterdam (starting grant), the Danish Council for Independent Research–Natural Sciences (grant 11-106163) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (grant 824.15.007). W.J.B. was supported by a grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation to the Global Tree Seed Bank Project at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. J.C.S. was supported by the European Research Council (ERC-2012-StG-310886-HISTFUNC), and also considers this work a contribution to his VILLUM Investigator project 'Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World' funded by VILLUM FONDEN.

Author information


  1. Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED), University of Amsterdam, PO Box 94248, Amsterdam, 1090 GE, The Netherlands

    • Renske E. Onstein
    •  & W. Daniel Kissling
  2. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 3AE, UK

    • William J. Baker
  3. IRD, DIADE, Univ Montpellier, Montpellier, 34394, France

    • Thomas L. P. Couvreur
  4. Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Box 461, SE 405 30, Göteborg, Sweden

    • Søren Faurby
  5. Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre, Box 461, SE 405 30, Göteborg, Sweden

    • Søren Faurby
  6. Section for Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 114, Aarhus C, DK-8000, Denmark

    • Jens-Christian Svenning


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W.D.K. conceived the idea; W.D.K. and R.E.O. designed the study; W.D.K. and R.E.O. collected data; R.E.O. analysed the data; R.E.O. and W.D.K. wrote the manuscript; all authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Renske E. Onstein or W. Daniel Kissling.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary notes, figures, tables, data sources and references

  2. Life sciences reporting summary

  3. Supplementary Table 1

    Summary statistics of fruit sizes for each palm genus