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Fig-eating by vertebrate frugivores: a global review

  • MIKE SHANAHAN (a1) (a2), SAMSON SO (a3) (a4), STEPHEN G. COMPTON (a1) and RICHARD CORLETT (a4)

The consumption of figs (the fruit of Ficus spp.; Moraceae) by vertebrates is reviewed using data from the literature, unpublished accounts and new field data from Borneo and Hong Kong. Records of frugivory from over 75 countries are presented for 260 Ficus species (approximately 30% of described species). Explanations are presented for geographical and taxonomic gaps in the otherwise extensive literature. In addition to a small number of reptiles and fishes, 1274 bird and mammal species in 523 genera and 92 families are known to eat figs. In terms of the number of species and genera of fig-eaters and the number of fig species eaten we identify the avian families interacting most with Ficus to be Columbidae, Psittacidae, Pycnonotidae, Bucerotidae, Sturnidae and Lybiidae. Among mammals, the major fig-eating families are Pteropodidae, Cercopithecidae, Sciuridae, Phyllostomidae and Cebidae. We assess the role these and other frugivores play in Ficus seed dispersal and identify fig-specialists. In most, but not all, cases fig specialists provide effective seed dispersal services to the Ficus species on which they feed. The diversity of fig-eaters is explained with respect to fig design and nutrient content, phenology of fig ripening and the diversity of fig presentation. Whilst at a gross level there exists considerable overlap between birds, arboreal mammals and fruit bats with regard to the fig species they consume, closer analysis, based on evidence from across the tropics, suggests that discrete guilds of Ficus species differentially attract subsets of sympatric frugivore communities. This dispersal guild structure is determined by interspecific differences in fig design and presentation. Throughout our examination of the fig-frugivore interaction we consider phylogenetic factors and make comparisons between large-scale biogeographical regions. Our dataset supports previous claims that Ficus is the most important plant genus for tropical frugivores. We explore the concept of figs as keystone resources and suggest criteria for future investigations of their dietary importance. Finally, fully referenced lists of frugivores recorded at each Ficus species and of Ficus species in the diet of each frugivore are presented as online appendices. In situations where ecological information is incomplete or its retrieval is impractical, this valuable resource will assist conservationists in evaluating the role of figs or their frugivores in tropical forest sites.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Mike Shanahan, Castle View, La Route de St. Aubin, First Tower, St. Helier, Jersey JE2 3SF, UK (e-mail:
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Biological Reviews
  • ISSN: 1464-7931
  • EISSN: 1469-185X
  • URL: /core/journals/biological-reviews
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