Traveset, A. & N. Riera. 2005. Disruption of a plant-lizard seed dispersal system and its ecological effect on a threatened endemic plant in the Balearic Islands. Conservation Biology. 19 (2): 421-431
The introduction of exotic species to an island can have significant effects on the population density and distribution of native species and on the ecological and evolutionary interactions among them (e.g., plant-animal mutualisms). The disruption of these interactions can be dramatic, significantly reducing the reproductive success of the species and even leading to their extinction. On Menorca Island (Balearic Islands, western Mediterranean), we examined the consequences of the disruption of the mutualism between two endemic species: a perennial shrub, ( Daphne rodriguezii [Texidor]) and a frugivorous lizard (Podarcis lilfordi [Günther]). The lizard became extinct from this island (as well as from Mallorca) as a result of the introduction of carnivorous mammals, which has continued since Roman times. The relict mutualism between D. rodriguezii and the lizard currently persists only in an islet (60 ha) where P. lilfordi is still abundant. We hypothesized that the absence of this lizard from most Menorcan populations is the factor causing the regression of this plant, currently considered at risk of extinction. Through observation and experimentation in the field and laboratory, we found strong evidence that a lack of seed dispersal in Menorca is the main cause of the low seedling recruitment. First, the population with greatest seedling recruitment was that in the islet where lizards were abundant. Second, lizards appeared to be the only dispersers of D. rodriguezii. Lizards consumed large amounts of fruits, without affecting either germination or seedling growth, and moved seeds to sites suitable for plant establishment. Seedlings in Menorca, in contrast, recruited almost exclusively under the parent plants. Third, the effect of other factors that may influence plant population growth (a low fruit set and a high postdispersal seed predation) was similar between the islet and the Menorcan populations. To our knowledge, our results are the first that quantitatively show that a biological invasion can cause a disruption of a specialized plant-vertebrate mutualism that sets the plant partner on the road to extinction.