Terrestrial vertebrates alter seedling composition and richness but not diversity in an Australian tropical rain forest
Although birds and mammals play important roles in several mechanisms hypothesized to maintain plant diversity in species-rich habitats, there have been few long-term, community-level tests of their importance. We excluded terrestrial birds and mammals from fourteen 6 × 7.5 m plots in Australian primary tropical rain forest and compared recruitment and survival of tree seedlings annually over the subsequent seven years to that on nearby open plots. We re-censused a subset of the plots after 13 years of vertebrate exclusion to test for longer-term effects. After two years of exclusion, seedling abundance was significantly higher (74%) on exclosure plots and remained so at each subsequent census. Richness was significantly higher on exclosure plots from 1998 to 2003, but in 2009 richness no longer differed, and rarefied species richness was higher in the presence of vertebrates. Shannon's diversity and Pielou's evenness did not differ in any year. Vertebrates marginally increased density-dependent mortality and recruitment limitation, but neither effect was great enough to increase richness or diversity on open plots relative to exclosure plots. Terrestrial vertebrates significantly altered seedling community composition, having particularly strong impacts on members of the Lauraceae. Overall, our results highlight that interactions between terrestrial vertebrates and tropical tree recruitment may not translate into strong community-level effects on diversity, especially over the short term, despite significant impacts on individual species that result in altered species composition.