Frugivory underpins the nitrogen cycle
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Tropical rainforests are populated by large frugivores that feed upon fruit-producing woody species, yet their role in regulating the cycle of globally important biogeochemical elements such as nitrogen is still unknown. This is particularly relevant because tropical forests play a prominent role in the nitrogen cycle and are becoming rapidly defaunated. Furthermore, frugivory is not considered in current plant-large herbivore-nutrient cycling frameworks exclusively focused on grazers and browsers. Here we used a long-term replicated paired control-exclusion experiment in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, where peccaries and tapirs are the largest native frugivores, to examine the impact of large ground-dwelling frugivores on modulating soil nitrogen cycling, considering their effects across a gradient of abundance of a hyper-dominant palm. We found that both large frugivores and dominant palms play a substantial role in modulating ammonium availability and nitrification rates. Large frugivores increased ammonium by 95%, which also increased additively with palm abundance. Nitrification rates increased with palm abundance in the presence of large frugivores, but not on exclosure plots. Large frugivores also stimulated the regulation of the functions of soil-nitrifying microorganisms, and modulated the landscape-scale variance in nitrogen availability. Such joint effects of large frugivores and palms are consistent with the notion of ‘fruiting lawns’. Our study indicates that frugivory plays a pivotal role in zoogeochemistry in tropical forests by regulating and structuring the nitrogen cycle, urging to accommodate frugivory in plant-large herbivore-nutrient cycling frameworks. It also indicates that defaunation, deforestation and illegal palm and timber harvesting seriously affect nitrogen cycling in tropical forests, that play a prominent role in the global cycle of this nutrient. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.
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