Recruitment dynamics in a rainforest seedling community: context-independent impact of a keystone consumer Academic Article uri icon


  • The influence of keystone consumers on community structure is frequently context-dependent; the same species plays a central organising role in some situations, but not others. On Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, a single species of omnivorous land crab, Gecarcoidea natalis, dominates the forest floor across intact rainforest. We hypothesised that this consumer plays a key role in regulating seedling recruitment and in controlling litter dynamics on the island, independent of the type of vegetation in which it occurred. To test this hypothesis, we conducted crab exclusion experiments in two forest types on the island and followed the dynamics of seedling recruitment and litter processing for six years. To determine if these effects were likely to be general across the island, we compared land crab densities and seedling abundance and diversity at ten sites across island rainforest. Surveys across island rainforest showed that seedlings of species susceptible to predation by land crabs are consistently rare. Abundance and diversity of these species were negatively correlated to red crab abundance. Although red land crabs may be important determinants of seedling recruitment to the overstorey, differences in overstorey and seedling composition at the sites suggests that recruitment of vulnerable trees still occurs at a temporal scale exceeding that of this study. These "windows" of recruitment may be related to infrequent events that reduce the effects of land crabs. Our results suggest that unlike the context dependence of most keystone consumers in continental systems, a single consumer, the red land crab, consistently controls the dynamics of seedling recruitment across this island rainforest.

publication date

  • May 2008