Question: What are the qualitative and quantitative long-term changes in the vascular epiphyte assemblage on a particular host tree species?
Location: Lowland rain forest of the San Lorenzo Crane Plot, Republic of Panama.
Methods: We followed the fate of the vascular epiphyte assemblage on 99 individuals of the palm Socratea exorrhiza by three censuses over the course of five years.
Results: The composition of the epiphyte assemblage changed little during the course of the study. While the similarity of epiphyte vegetation decreased on individual palms through time, the similarity analysed over all palms increased. Even well established epiphyte individuals experienced high mortality with only 46% of the originally mapped individuals surviving the following five years. We found a positive correlation between host tree size and epiphyte richness and detected higher colonization rates of epiphytes per surface area on larger trees.
Conclusions: Epiphyte assemblages on individual S. exorrhiza trees were highly dynamic while the overall composition of the epiphyte vegetation on the host tree species in the study plot was stable. We suggest that higher recruitment rates, due to localized seed dispersal by already established epiphytes, on larger palms promote the colonization of epiphytes on larger palms. Given the known growth rates and mortality rates of the host tree species, the maximum time available for colonization and reproduction of epiphytes on a given tree is estimated to be ca. 60 years. This time frame will probably be too short to allow assemblages to be ever saturated.