Tree and bird functional groups as indicators of recovery of regenerating subtropical coastal dune forests

31 Oct 2017

Functional diversity indicators are increasingly used to monitor forest function recovery because they connect biodiversity to ecosystem functions. However, identifying which functions deviate from a reference forest has not received much attention, despite its potential to inform restoration interventions. In this study, we used functional groups to assess the recovery of ecosystem functions in regenerating coastal dune forests. We surveyed birds and trees in forest of different ages and a reference old-growth forest in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. We classified species into functional groups for each taxa based on functional traits or a priori defined categories (i.e. guilds) and quantified the number of species within functional groups as a proxy of function stability. Bird species density followed an asymptotic trajectory, reaching old-growth forest values after 25 years. Insectivores and granivores showed saturating trajectories, whereas small frugivores and generalists increased linearly. With the exception of large frugivores, relative abundances of bird functional groups progressed towards old-growth forest values as the forest aged. Tree species density increased linearly with forest age. In contrast to old-growth forests, large-canopy trees and understory shrubs were under-represented, while mid-canopy trees dominated regenerating forests. Our result suggests that most bird, but not tree, functions may have been restored. The trend in large frugivore numbers may warrant further investigation, as their low numbers may have hampered the recovery of tree functions. We conclude that functional group trajectories can track functions that deviate from a benchmark, and may therefore direct adaptive actions to recover the stability of regenerating forest.