Question: Do vascular epiphyte species have a metapopulation structure? What are the qualitative and quantitative long-term changes of the complete vascular epiphyte vegetation in a particular host tree species?
Location: Lowland forest on Barro Colorado Island (9°10′ N, 79°51′ W), Republic of Panama.
Methods: In 1994 and 2002 we conducted a census of all vascular epiphytes growing on more than 1000 Annona glabra trees (= patches). Epiphyte species abundances were recorded at the tree level in each census.
Results: The number of epiphyte individuals increased from ca. 15 000 to ca. 23 700 individuals during the census interval while the species composition on Annona glabra as a whole was rather stable. There was a strong positive relationship between occurrence in patches and local abundance of the species, and between species richness and host tree stand size. The dynamics of local populations of a given species were uncorrelated to each other; small and large local populations of most species had the same probability to go extinct. The frequency distribution of species on all host trees was not bimodal, but on a subset of heavily colonized host tree stands it was. Numbers of species and individuals were correlated with tree size which was not due to a correlation of tree size and tree age.
Conclusions: As far as the most abundant epiphyte species with metapopulation structures are concerned, these species belong to diverse families, e. g. Orchidaceae, Bromeliaceae and Polypodiaceae. Even ca. 80 years after the initial establishment of the host tree species in the study area epiphytes are still in the stage of initial colonization and have not reached a steady state as indicated by the strong increase in individuals and the ongoing colonization of empty trees.