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Frugivory-related traits promote speciation of tropical palms


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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Fig. 1: Global variation in palm fruit size.
Fig. 2: Speciation rate estimates for palm lineages with small (<4 cm) and large (≥4 cm) fruits.
Fig. 3: Understory habitat and its effect on speciation rates for palm lineages with small (<4 cm) fruits.
Fig. 4: Island colonization and its effect on speciation rates for palm lineages with small (<4 cm) fruits.


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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.

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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.

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

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Supplementary Table 1

Summary statistics of fruit sizes for each palm genus

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Onstein, R.E., Baker, W.J., Couvreur, T.L.P. et al. Frugivory-related traits promote speciation of tropical palms. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1903–1911 (2017).

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