Introduced rabbits as seed-dispersing frugivores: a study case on an environmentally diverse oceanic island (Tenerife, Canaries)
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Rabbits have travelled with humans to the most remote archipelagos, having been introduced on at least 800 islands worldwide. This herbivore has caused a devastating effect on endemic insular plants, causing changes in species composition, cascading extinctions and disruption of native seed dispersal systems worldwide. However, its ecological impacts as disrupting native seed dispersal systems have not been studied from a holistic perspective in any of the archipelagos where rabbits were introduced. Here, we assess the role of rabbits as frugivores and seed-dispersers on the most extensive and diverse island of the Canary Archipelago, Tenerife, across its five main vegetation zones represented in an altitudinal gradient 0 – 3715 m a.s.l. To this end, 120 transects per vegetation zone were conducted (August 2020-November 2021) to collect fresh faecal samples from a total of 244 latrines. They consisted of 29,538 droppings in which we found seeds from 73 plant species, 29 of which were identified to species level (13 endemic, eight natives and eight introduced by humans). About 70% of the seeds were identified as fleshy-fruited plant species while the remaining nine were dry fruits. Of the former, only nine showed a percentage of intact seeds greater than 75%, another nine species between 50-75%, and three lower than 50%. The digestive effect of rabbits on seedling emergence was generally low, compared to that produced by native seed dispersers. Since fleshy-fruited plants and rabbits have not been linked in their evolutionary history in the Canaries, the former seems to have their own legitimate seed dispersers.