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Abstract Aim This study proposes a process to select plant species that would provide suitable candidates for monitoring climate change impacts in areas where complete biological inventories are lacking. Location Inselberg floras of nine inselberg landscapes (i.e. isolated mountains) in the arid Desert and Nama Karoo biome in Namibia were analysed to develop a selection process. Methods Data from detailed field surveys were summarized to determine species only occurring on inselberg habitats (i.e. inselberg specialists). Detrended correspondence analysis and a step-by-step selection process based on species distribution patterns were used to determine species occurring on inselbergs beyond their zonal distribution ranges. Results The systematic selection process initially identified 88 plant species. Based on field observations and published sources eliminating species (1) with a wide distribution elsewhere, (2) distribution influenced by local effects and (3) for which their status of knowledge of distribution was clearly inadequate, this list was further reduced to 25 species. This included southern species occurring on inselbergs likely beyond their zonal distribution, such as Adenolobus garipensis, Aloe dichotoma and Euphorbia gummifera, as well as savanna and escarpment species at their western zonal distribution edge (e.g. Cordia sinensis, Commiphora glaucescens and Moringa ovalifolia). Main conclusions The step-by-step selection process proposed in this study to assist with the selection of indicators for climate change provides an objective tool in areas where biodiversity coverage is not adequate and little is known about physiology, growth and reproductive patterns of individual species. As such it introduces a method for preliminary screening of species, but will require further input based on field observations and expert knowledge.