Question: Vertical zonation schemes are widely used in biodiversity studies with vascular epiphytes as a tool to capture spatial distribution patterns, the one most commonly used was proposed by Johansson more than 30 years ago. Does a survey of the epiphytes found on larger trees really yield a representative sample of the local community?
Location: Lowland rainforest of the San Lorenzo Crane Plot, Republic of Panama.
Methods: A complete census of the vascular epiphytes on all trees > 1 cm DBH in 0.4 ha of undisturbed lowland forest was analysed with both cluster and discriminant analysis to detect groupings of epiphyte species.
Results: Six different groups of species were detected, five of them preferring different substrates on larger trees (as defined by (1) the height above ground at the attachment site, (2) the diameter of the substrate and (3) the occurrence on stem vs branches/twigs) and resembling to some extent the original Johansson zones. A sixth group of epiphytes, comprising ca. 10% of all taxa, was almost always found on small diameter stems and branches of trees with small DBH at lower and intermediate heights within the forest.
Conclusions: Applying pre-established zonation schemes may lead to misleading results in biodiversity studies with epiphytes. Important aspects of spatial distribution patterns may be missed, and the determination of relative species abundances may carry a strong quantitative and qualitative bias when analyses rely completely on epiphytic plants found on larger trees.
Nomenclature: For flowering plants D'Arcy (1987), for ferns Lellinger (1989) and Croat (1978), for filmy ferns compare also Zotz & Büche (2000). Encyclia aemula (=Prosthechea aemula) was treated as a separate species following Dressler (1993). A complete species list was published by Zotz (2004). Voucher specimens are deposited in the herbarium of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama (Tupper Center).