Dissecting the contributions of dispersal and host properties to the local abundance of a tropical mistletoe

Marcos A. Caraballo-Ortiz, Aarón González-Castro, Suann Yang, Claude W. dePamphilis, Tomás A. Carlo

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10 Scopus citations


The interplay between dispersal and adaptation to local environments ultimately determines the distribution of plant species, but their relative contribution remains little understood. Tropical mistletoes provide the opportunity to dissect these contributions of dispersal and adaptation, because as hemiparasitic plants, they are typically adapted to grow on a handful of species within diverse tropical communities and are non-randomly dispersed by mutualistic frugivorous birds. Here we hypothesized that the primary determinant of the abundance of a tropical mistletoe (Dendropemon caribaeus, Loranthaceae) in Puerto Rico will be the compatibility between the mistletoe and plant species in a community. Alternatively, the mistletoe's abundance could be primarily shaped by other factors such as the availability of potential host plants, or factors that determine how mistletoe seeds are dispersed by avian frugivores. We conducted surveys and experiments to assess the capacity of this mistletoe to grow on trees available in the local community, and measured the monthly phenology and seed dispersal patterns of the mistletoe and other bird-dispersed plants in the community over a period of 4 years. A path model was used to evaluate how the abundance of the mistletoe was shaped by host abundance, fruiting phenology, bird dispersal and compatibilities with host plants. Our analyses show that the compatibility between mistletoe and host tree species, measured by mistletoe survival and growth rate, was the most important factor for mistletoe abundance. The next most important factor was the phenological characteristics of the hosts; this outcome likely arose because frugivory and seed dispersal services for mistletoes and hosts are performed by the same birds. Synthesis. Mistletoes often parasitize only a subset of the suitable plant species that are available in a given community. Our results indicate that such patterns are not only determined by host quality and abundance but also by the phenological patterns of trees that influence the probabilities of mistletoe seeds being deposited on them by shared avian seed dispersers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1657-1667
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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