CIE Spotlight: Functional replacement across species pools of vertebrate scavengers separated at a continental scale maintains an ecosystem function

Kasun E. and Mike W.
Kasun E. and Mike W.

Authors: Huijbers, Chantal M.; Schlacher, Thomas A.; McVeigh, Rosemary R.; Schoeman, David S.; Olds, Andrew D.; Brown, Marion B.; Ekanayake, Kasun B.; Weston, Michael A.; Connolly, Rod M.

Source: FUNCTIONAL ECOLOGY, 30 (6):998-1005, JUN 2016

Brief summary of the paper: The composition of species pools can vary in space and time. While many studies are focused on understanding which factors influence the make-up of species pools, the question to which degree biogeographic variation in species composition propagates to biogeographic variation in ecological function is rarely examined. If different local species assemblages operate in ways that maintain specific ecological processes across continents, they can be regarded as functionally equivalent. Alternatively, variation in species assemblages might result in the loss of ecological function if different species fulfil different functions, and thereby fail to maintain the ecological process.

Here, we test whether ecological function is affected by differences in the composition of species pools across a continental scale, comparing a tropical with a temperate pool. The model systems are assemblages of vertebrates foraging on ocean beaches, and the ecological function of interest is the consumption of wave-cast carrion, a pivotal process in sandy shore ecosystems.

We placed fish carcasses (n = 179) at the beach–dune interface, monitored by motion-triggered cameras to record scavengers and quantify the detection and removal of carrion. Scavenging function was measured on sandy beaches in two distinct biogeographic regions of Australia: tropical north Queensland and temperate Victoria.

The composition of scavenging assemblages on sandy beaches varied significantly across the study domain. Raptors dominated in the tropics, while invasive red foxes were prominent in temperate assemblages. Notwithstanding the significant biogeographic change in species composition, ecological function – as indexed by carcass detection and removal – was maintained, suggesting strong functional replacement at the continental scale.

Species pools of vertebrate scavengers that are assembled from taxonomically distinct groups (birds vs. mammals) and located in distinct climatic regions (temperate vs. tropical) can maintain an ecological process via replacement of species with comparable functional traits.