Non-intrusive systematic study reveals mutualistic interactions between threatened island endemic species and points to more impactful conservation.
Oceanic islands harbour a disproportionately large share of extinct and endangered birds worldwide and up to about 6,800 highly threatened plants, stressing the urgency for conservation efforts there. However, effective conservation action can only be as sound as the ecological understanding on which it is based. Knowledge about the ecology of threatened birds and plants can be relatively sketchy even in well-studied oceanic islands and this can potentially misdirect or erode conservation actions' effectiveness. We used camera traps to document vertebrate flower visitors of a threatened, mono-specific endemic oceanic island plant (Roussea simplex) that produces much nectar and which was abundant until the 1930s before declining severely despite its presence mostly within protected areas. We determined proportions of native and alien flower visitors in four populations and characterised their ecological role (e.g. florivore, nectar robber, pollinator) through observations and exclusion experiments alongside experiments to determine seed sets by agamospermy, autogamy, geitonogamy and xenogamy. Five native and three alien vertebrate species visited flowers (N = 5,085 camera trap-hours), 96.6% of visits being from birds. Among endemics, 74-96% of visits were by the Mauritius Bulbul (Hypsipetes olivaceus), a threatened bird able to effect pollination contrary to the other endemic birds. Roussea simplex is primarily xenogamous, producing 2,657 ± 480 seeds, and seed set dropped markedly when the bird was excluded (861.8 ± 91.0 SE, Kruskal-Wallis χ2 = 14.2, p < 0.001). Natural seed set was very low (410.0 ± 85.3 SE) where the bird was locally extinct or very rare. Invasive alien rats (Rattus rattus) and long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) were important florivores or nectar robbers. Systematic non-intrusive study using camera traps combined with manipulative experiments revealed a mutualism between two relatively well-studied threatened endemic species as well as new threats from alien vertebrates acting as nectar robbers and florivores. Roussea simplex's major decline within protected areas and its abundant and year round flowering and nectar production point to a major hitherto unrecorded drop in floral resource previously available to at least five endemic species, and particularly to its commonest flower visitor and principal pollinator, the threatened Mauritius Bulbul. These findings exemplify how systematic non-intrusive study of threatened species may radically change conservation managers' priorities which in the current case should focus primarily on controlling alien rats and macaques and re-instating or reinforcing Bulbul-Roussea mutualism as each would be more impactful than addressing gecko-Roussea mutualism disruption by alien ants which so far was the only recorded threat thought to drive the rapid decline of Roussea simplex. Our study underscores that current conservation efforts should also pay particular attention to medium to longer-term changes in habitat or community composition which may not be obvious from merely considering extent and composition of current habitats.