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The Southern African orchid flora: composition, sources and endemism

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Abstract Aim 

The Southern African orchid flora is taxonomically well known, but the biogeographical and diversity patterns have not yet been analysed. In particular, we want to establish whether (a) it is, like the Southern African flora in general, more diverse than would be expected from its latitude and area; (b) it is an African flora, or whether it contains palaeoendemic relicts of a Gondwanan orchid flora; (c) the diversity and endemism in the orchid flora is concentrated in particular biomes and habitat types; and (d) the patterns of endemism in the flora can be accounted for by current environmental parameters, or whether we need to invoke historical explanations. Location 

Southern Africa. Methods 

We used the recent floristic account of the Southern African orchids, in conjunction with a data base of over 14,642 herbarium records, to assign the species and subspecies of Southern African orchids to biomes, habitats, and clades. We explored the relationship between the number and endemism of entities (species, subspecies and varieties) and the biomes and habitats. We compared the richness of this flora with that of 31 other regions from all continents and latitudes, to establish whether the Southern African orchid flora is richer or poorer than expected. We assigned the Southern African orchid species to 16 monophyletic clades and mapped the global distribution of these clades to establish the continental affinities of the flora. Main conclusions 

The Southern African orchid flora is not any more diverse than could be expected from its latitude or area, while the two tropical African floras included were less diverse than expected. Latitude is an excellent predictor of regional orchid species richness; this might indicate that available habitat is more important for orchid diversity than gross area available, since latitude is probably correlated with the extent of suitable habitat. The Southern African orchid flora is clearly an African flora, since all clades are also found in tropical Africa, while many of them are absent from the Americas or Asia. Conversely, while most African orchid clades are also found in Southern Africa, both the Americas and Asia contain many clades absent from Africa. The distribution of orchid entities among the biomes in Southern Africa is very uneven, with two of the seven biomes totally devoid of orchids. Habitats and biomes that have no equivalent in tropical Africa are high in endemism, and habitats and biomes which are also well developed in tropical Africa are low in endemism. Endemism appears largely explained in terms of modern habitats. However, two patterns (the high endemism in the Succulent Karoo and the lack of endemism in the southern Cape among epiphytic orchids) may also be explained in terms of Quaternary climatic changes.
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Keywords: Biodiversity; Orchidaceae; Southern Africa; biogeography; biomes; endemism; habitats

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: National Botanical Institute, Claremont, South Africa 2: School of Botany and Zoology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

Publication date: January 1, 2005

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