Berries in winter: a natural history of fruit retention in four species across Alaska.
ABSTRACT : Plants with persistent fleshy fruits that last throughout fall and into winter and spring are an important source of nutrition for animals and people in boreal, subarctic, and arctic regions, but little information on fruit retention or loss is available for these regions. We evaluated fruit loss for four species across Alaska using data from our Winterberry community science network. Plants of Rosa acicularis Lindl., Viburnum edule (Michx.) Raf., Vaccinium vitis-idaea L., and Empetrum nigrum L. were monitored on a weekly basis throughout fall until snow cover and again after snow melt in 24 communities in six ecoregions in 2016–2020. Observers counted fruits and classified them into “unhealthy” (dried, rotten, or damaged) or “healthy”. Number of fruits lost per day (absolute loss rate) decreased over the course of the fall, but percent of fruits lost per day (relative loss rate) was constant for all species except E. nigrum, where it declined throughout the fall. Rates of loss were similar across ecoregions and climatic gradients, although for V. vitis-idaea the two most southern sites had the lowest relative loss rates and for E. nigrum the sites warmest in summer had the lowest loss rates. Fruit loss pulse events (>15% fruits lost in one week) were uncommon (<5% of weekly observations). At the time of persistent winter snow cover, plants retained 25–50% of fruits, with higher retention in more southern ecoregions. During winter, both relative fruit loss and absolute fruit loss rates dropped compared to fall, but in spring they rebounded to fall levels. Low proportions of unhealthy fruits in E. nigrum and V. vitis-idaea were in part due to rapid abscission of unhealthy fruits, while the other two species tended to retain unhealthy fruits. We estimate that vertebrate frugivores obtain 6–45 × as many fruits in fall as do decomposers / invertebrates. The higher loss rates during the snow-free seasons and constant rates of fruit loss for most of the focal species and locations suggest that longer falls and earlier fruit ripening will lead to lower fruit availability to animals in winter and spring.
The Bonanza Creek LTER is a member of the U.S. LTER Network which is supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1636476) and by the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station (RJVA-PNW-01-JV-11261952-231). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.