What makes a good phorophyte? Predicting occupancy, species richness and abundance of vascular epiphytes in a lowland seasonal tropical forest
Frontiers in Forests and Global Change
Epiphytes typically exhibit clustered distribution patterns, but predicting the spatial variation of their distribution at fine scales has long been a challenge. Taking advantage of a canopy crane giving access to 1.1 ha of lowland seasonal rainforest in Yunnan (China), we assess here which factors promote the probability that a given tree hosts epiphytes, and the variation of species richness and abundance of epiphytic spermatophytes and ferns among trees. Variation in epiphyte species
... as a function of host tree size, characteristics of its surrounding environment, topography and microclimatic conditions, were analyzed by Random Forest. Epiphytic spermatophytes and ferns occupied 2.3 and 10.8% of the available host trees, respectively. Significant models predicting which trees are more likely to host epiphytes than others were obtained, indicating that host tree characteristics and their local environment play a significant role in determining which host tree is most likely to be colonized. These models, as well as models for species richness and abundance, however, exhibited a moderate to low accuracy (r2 0.28 and 0.24 and of 0.12 and 0.14 for spermatophyte and fern richness and abundance, respectively). The best predictor of the presence of epiphytes on a tree, of its epiphytic species richness and abundance, was its DBH. In ferns, however, two peaks of species richness were observed, representing shade-loving ferns on small trees and sun-loving ferns on large trees. Microclimatic conditions and light intensity were the second best factor accounting for variation in species richness and abundance among trees. The contribution of liana infestation, host tree identity, and characteristics of neighboring trees were marginal. Our inclusion of a large number of host-tree characteristics and their local environment did not allow for an apparent improvement of model accuracy over studies with a more limited number of predictors, pointing to the role of chance upon tree colonization. Our results confirm the utmost importance of large trees with emergent canopies for the conservation of the epiphytic flora, but also indicate that epiphytic diversity assessments in tropical forests must also include small understorey trees, which should be further considered for conservation. The importance of the micro-climatic conditions that prevail at the level of each individual host tree further points to the necessity of maintaining a buffer zone around large host trees targeted for conservation.