Monitoring epiphyte colonization in Costa Rican forest restoration

Leighton Reid and Miguel Chaves are investigating how tropical forest restoration influences plant diversity. Leighton is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development. Miguel is a doctoral student at University of Missouri Saint Louis.

Epiphytes are plants that live non-parasitically on other plants. That is, they grow on the trunk or branches of another plant (often a tree) without extracting nutrients from it, as mistletoes do. In Missouri, one example is the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), an epiphyte famous for its ability to re-green after lengthy desiccation.

In tropical forests, epiphytes are much more diverse. Science writers commonly use the word “festooned” to describe the profuse growth of aroids, bromeliads, ferns, and especially orchids on tropical trees. In certain places, epiphytes can make up as much as 50% of a forest’s vascular plant species.

We were curious about how ecological restoration influences epiphyte communities, so over the summer Miguel Chaves worked with local conservationist Juan Abel Rosales and botanist Federico Oviedo to survey the vascular epiphyte composition and abundance on 1086 trees growing in thirteen restoration sites in southern Costa Rica. They found about one hundred species, several of which are depicted below.

This fall, we are analyzing these data to learn about how tree planting influences epiphyte community assembly compared to natural forest regeneration. In particular, we hope to shed light on two questions:

(1) To what degree does tree planting facilitate epiphyte recovery?

(2) At what spatial scale does local forest restoration interact with landscape context to influence epiphyte recolonization?

The base of this poro tree (Erythrina poeppigiana) has sufficient ferns to warrant the descriptor “festooned”. Ferns visible in this photograph include: Niphidium crassifolium, Serpocaulon fraxinifolium, Serpocaulon dissimile and Polypodium dulce.

The base of this poro tree (Erythrina poeppigiana) has sufficient ferns to warrant the descriptor “festooned”. Ferns visible in this photograph include: Niphidium crassifolium, Serpocaulon fraxinifolium, Serpocaulon dissimile and Polypodium dulce.

A showy orchid (Dichaea cryptarrhena) hangs from a mossy bed below two bromeliads.

A showy orchid (Dichaea cryptarrhena) hangs from a mossy bed below two bromeliads.

An inflorescence of Drymonia macrantha (Gesneriaceae).

An inflorescence of Drymonia macrantha (Gesneriaceae).

Miguel and Juan Abel at work next to a particularly good-looking bromeliad (Guzmania zahnii). Photo by Karen Holl.

Miguel and Juan Abel at work next to a particularly good-looking bromeliad (Guzmania zahnii). Photo by Karen Holl.

Many of the epiphytes that Miguel and Juan Abel observed were flowerless seedlings, like this Gongora armeniaca.

Many of the epiphytes that Miguel and Juan Abel observed were flowerless seedlings, like this Gongora armeniaca (Orchidaceae).

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