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Relationships of phytogeography and diversity of tropical tree species with limestone topography in southern Belize

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Abstract Aim 

The flora of northern Mesoamerica conventionally has been thought to be derived from taxa that emigrated from South America, but this view has recently been challenged as too simple. The dominance of limestone substrata in much of northern Mesoamerica, and its rarity in the rest of the continental Neotropics, may be one cause of the complexity of northern Mesoamerican floristics. Furthermore, northern Mesoamerica experiences longer and more intense seasonal drought than the rest of the continental Neotropics. As edaphic drought is accentuated with elevation on limestone soils, it may be expected that different topographic features have different phytogeographical affinities for seasonally drought-prone areas of the Neotropics. The objective of this study was to test for effects of different topographic positions on the composition, phytogeography and diversity of tree species in a limestone area of Belize. Location 

Maya Mountains, Belize, Mesoamerica. Methods 

The diversity and local, regional, and hemispheric distributions of tree species on limestone valley floors, lower and upper slopes, and ridges were compared in southern Belize using 2 × 500 m transects as sample plots. Results 

Stem density increased, and percentage of large trees decreased, significantly with elevation above the valley floors. The proportions of species that had widespread distributions decreased significantly with increasing elevation above the valley floors. The proportions of species having northern Mesoamerican distributions increased significantly with elevation above the valley floors. All of the forests generally had the strongest phytogeographical affinities for the Petén (Guatemala) and Mexico, but greater affinities for the Yucatán were observed with increasing elevation above the valley floors. Species with distributions including the Greater Antilles made up an increasingly significant element, in terms of species and numbers of stems, with increasing elevation above the floors of valleys. Valley floors and ridges had the highest percentages of species unique to their topographic positions, 61% and 39% of their species, respectively, and were very similar in diversity. Slope forests had the highest diversity of trees ≥ 5 cm d.b.h. and were transitional in composition among the topographic positions. Main conclusions 

Despite relatively small changes in elevation, the composition, diversity and physical structure of the limestone forests changed significantly with topography. Such changes were presumably due to the greater edaphic drought experienced by these forests, and possibly due to lower levels of disturbance and differences in forest age, with increasing elevation above the floors of valleys.
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Keywords: Karst; Maya Mountains; Mesoamerica; elevation gradient; tree species diversity

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Section of Evolution and Ecology, University of California, Davis, CA 2: Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 3: Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA

Publication date: November 1, 2003

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