The mobile crane of the Surumoni project allowed for the first time ever a complete inventory and spatial description of the epiphytic vegetation of a tropical lowland rain forest plot (1.5 ha), at La Esmeralda on the upper Orinoco River, Venezuela. A total of 778 individual vascular epiphytes of 53 species was found, dominated by 19 orchid species and 14 species of Araceae. Fifty percent of all individual plants were obligate ant-garden epiphytes. The distribution of epiphytes was highly clumped and not random. The clumped occurrence of holoepiphytes (complete life cycle on host tree) was the consequence of the rarity of suitable phorophytes (host trees; e.g., size and age) in the plot and the preference of ants for gaps where most of the ant-garden epiphytes were found. In comparison, hemiepiphytes were distributed more evenly because of greater independence from tree suitability. The dispersal modes of epiphytes did not explain their distribution patterns. There was no consistent difference in distribution between anemochorous and zoochorous epiphytes, presumably because availability of suitable substrate is the more important factor for epiphyte establishment and growth. Whereas the vertical distribution of epiphytes could be attributed largely to deterministic factors such as physiological adaptation and requirements, horizontal distribution appeared to be governed by suitable substrate, which in turn seemed to be governed by stochastic gap formation.
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