The geographic range size and vulnerability to extinction of angiosperm epiphytes in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil

Tarciso C.C. Leão, Peter B. Reich, Eimear Nic Lughadha

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1 Scopus citations


Aim: Angiosperm epiphytes have long been reported to have larger geographic ranges than terrestrial species, despite evidence of their outstanding diversity and endemism. This apparent contradiction calls for further investigation of epiphytes' poorly understood range size patterns. Here, we address the question of whether epiphytes have larger geographic ranges and different vulnerability to extinction than terrestrial species. Location: The Atlantic Forest of Brazil, a global centre of tropical epiphyte diversity with relatively well-known flora, where we can estimate the geographic ranges of a large number of species with reasonable confidence. Time period: Occurrence records from the 17th century to the year 2021. Major taxa studied: Flowering plants (angiosperms). Methods: We downloaded, processed and cleaned all occurrence records for the angiosperm species native to the Atlantic Forest of Brazil available in the speciesLink network and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. We estimated the extent of occurrence and area of occupancy of 12,679 native flowering plants, including 1251 epiphytic species. We compared the geographic ranges of epiphytes and other life forms at broad (e.g. Angiosperms, Monocots) and more restricted taxonomic scales (e.g. individual families), assuming species are independent entities and also when accounting for species phylogenetic dependence. Results: We found that epiphytes have among the smallest geographic ranges of flowering plants. We found no consistent evidence that epiphytism leads to differences in geographic ranges between close relatives. However, both epiphytes and non-epiphytes in epiphyte-rich lineages have small ranges and likely a high vulnerability to extinction. Main Conclusions: Our findings contrast with the long-held hypothesis that epiphytes have larger geographic ranges than terrestrial species. Epiphytes and their close relatives share many diversification mechanisms and ecological adaptations (‘epiphyte-like traits’), which probably explain why both sets of species have small range sizes and high vulnerability to extinction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1607-1617
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Matilda Brown for their helpful discussion and suggestions on statistics and figures. We thank members of the Conservation Assessment and Analysis team at the Kew Gardens, and the audience at the ATBC conference for feedback on early presentations of this work. TCCL received a Future Leader Fellowship from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Doctoral Fellowship from CAPES n. 1145/12‐6, and Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship from the University of Minnesota. PBR was supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Biological Integration Institutes grant NSF‐DBI‐2021898.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Authors. Global Ecology and Biogeography published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • Mata Atlântica
  • epiphytic lineages
  • extinction risk
  • geographic distribution


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