Opposed latitudinal patterns of network-derived and dietary specialization in avian plant–frugivore interaction systems

Latitudinal patterns of biodiversity have been studied for centuries, but it is only during the last decades that species interaction networks have been used to examine the proposed latitudinal gradient of biotic specialization. These studies have given idiosyncratic results, which may either be because of genuine biological differences between systems, different concepts and scales used to quantify biotic specialization or because the methodological approaches used to compare interaction networks were inappropriate. Here we carefully examine the latitudinal specialization gradient using a global dataset of avian plant–frugivore assemblages and interaction networks. In particular, we test whether network-derived specialization patterns differ from patterns based on assemblage-level information on avian dietary preferences on specific food types. We found that network-derived measures of specialization (complementary specialization H2' and < d’>, modularity Q) increased with latitude, i.e. frugivorous birds divide the niche of fruiting plants most finely at high latitudes where they also formed more modular interaction networks than at tropical latitudes. However, the strength and significance of the relationship between specialization metrics and latitude was influenced by the methodological approach. On the other hand, assemblage-level information on avian specialization on fruit diet (i.e. the proportion of obligate frugivorous bird species feeding primarily on fruit) revealed an opposed latitudinal pattern as more bird species were specialized on fruit diet in tropical than in temperate assemblages. This difference in the latitudinal specialization gradient reflects that obligate frugivores require a high diversity of fruit plants, as observed in tropical systems, and fulfil more generalized roles in plant–frugivore networks than bird species feeding on different food types. Future research should focus on revealing the underlying ecological, historical and evolutionary mechanisms shaping these patterns. Our results highlight the necessity of comparing different scales of biotic specialization for a better understanding of geographical patterns of specialization in resource–consumer interactions.