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Vascular Epiphytes Of Far North Queensland

1341 words - 6 pages

Vascular Epiphytes of Far North Queensland

There are several definitions of epiphytic plants, each with a subtle difference. Heywood (1993) states that an epiphyte is, "A plant that grows on the surface of another, without deriving food from its host". Raven (1992) states that an epiphyte is, "a plant that grows on another plant, but is not parasitic on it." Basically, a plant that derives its physical support from another plant (host = phorophyte (Luttge 1989)) is an epiphyte.

Epiphytes fill important ecological niches in variety of habitats. Epiphytic species can exist as 50% of the tree leaf mass and make up 30% to 50% of vascular plant diversity in tropical forests (Benzing ...view middle of the document...

There are two basic theories on the evolution of epiphytes. The first theory indicates that epiphytes may have been shade adapted plants, struggling for light that moved into the canopy. The second theory suggests that plants preadapted to high sun exposure moved from dry savannahs and steppes into the canopy (Luttge 1989).

The fossil record does not provide any support for either theory mentioned above. Plant and pollen fossils thought to belong to current day plant families containing epiphytes, can't be labeled epiphytic because the ancient habitats of the plants can't be readily observed. Other research has proposed that epiphytic diversity arose from the Pleistocene / Pliocene ages (roughly 1.5 to 5.0 MYA) (Luttge 1989).


Epiphytes are widely distributed throughout many plant divisions. Eighty - four vascular plant families have at least one epiphyte in the group, and approximately 10% of all vascular plant species are epiphytes. About one third of fern and monocot species are epiphytes. A greater number of epiphytic species are found in dicot vs monocot class (see Table 1) (Benzing 1990).

Table 1. Taxonomic distribution of epiphytes among divisions of vascular plants (data from Luttge 1989).

epiphytic total percent
# species # species
All vascular plants 23466 231638 10
Division Pteridophyta - ferns 2599 9000 29
Division Cycadophyta, Gnetophyta
- Gymnosperms 4 770 0.5
Division Magnoliophyta - Angiosperms 20863 221868 9
Class Magnoliopsida - dicotyledons 4253 167893 3
Class Liliopsida - monocotyledons 16610 53975 31

Several plant families have large percentages of epiphytic species. In the class Liliopsida, epiphytes are prevalent in the Orchidaceae ( 70% of the species epiphytic) and Bromeliaceae (50% are epiphytes) families. The class Magnoliopsida has several successful epiphyte containing families such as Moraceae, Ericaceae and Piperaceae. Eighty-nine percent of epiphytic vascular plants are angiosperms (Luttge 1989).


Five classification schemes were created to categorize and organize epiphytes. Classification categories include: relationships with host, growth form, humidity requirements, light requirements and adaptive traits geared toward the host (Benzing 1990). However, there is not one feature with which to classify or organize all...

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