Putting vascular epiphytes on the traits map

Peter Hietz*, Katrin Wagner, Flavio Nunes Ramos, Juliano Sarmento Cabral, Claudia Agudelo, Ana María Benavides, Manuel Jesús Cach‐Pérez, Catherine L. Cardelús, Nahlleli Chilpa Galván, Lucas Erickson Nascimento da Costa, Rodolfo Paula Oliveira, Helena J. R. Einzmann, Rafael Paiva Farias, Valeria Guzmán Jacob, Jens Kattge, Michael Kessler, Catherine Kirby, Holger Kreft, Thorsten Krömer, Jamie MalesSamuel Monsalve Correa, Maria Moreno‐Chacón, Gunnar Petter, Casandra Reyes‐García, Alfredo Saldaña, David Schellenberger Costa, Amanda Taylor, Noé Velázquez Rosas, Wolfgang Wanek, Carrie L. Woods, Gerhard Zotz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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1. Plant functional traits impact the fitness and environmental niche of plants. Major plant functional types have been characterized by their trait spectrum, and the environmental and phylogenetic imprints on traits have advanced several ecological fields. Yet, very few trait data on epiphytes, which represent almost 10% of vascular plants, are available.

2. We collated 76,561 trait observations for 2,882 species of vascular epiphytes and compared these to non-epiphytic herbs and trees to test hypotheses related to how the epiphytic habit affects traits, and if epiphytes occupy a distinct region in the global trait space. We also compared variation in traits among major groups of epiphytes, and investigated the coordination of traits in epiphytes, ground-rooted herbs and trees.

3. Epiphytes differ from ground-rooted plants mainly in traits related to water relations. Unexpectedly, we did not find lower leaf nutrient concentrations, except for nitrogen. Mean photosynthetic rates are much lower than in ground-rooted plants and lower than expected from the nitrogen concentrations. Trait syndromes clearly distinguish epiphytes from trees and from most non-epiphytic herbs.

4. Among the three largest epiphytic taxa, orchids differ from bromeliads and ferns mainly by having smaller and more numerous stomata, while ferns differ from bromeliads by having thinner leaves, higher nutrient concentrations, and lower water content and water use efficiency.

5. Trait networks differ among epiphytes, herbs and trees. While all have central nodes represented by SLA and mass-based photosynthesis, in epiphytes, traits related to plant water relations have stronger connections, and nutrients other than potassium have weaker connections to the remainder of the trait network. Whereas stem-specific density reflects mechanical support related to plant size in herbs and trees, in epiphytes it mostly reflects water storage and scales with leaf water content.

6. Synthesis. Our findings advance our understanding of epiphyte ecology, but we note that currently mainly leaf traits are available. Important gaps are root, shoot and whole plant, demographic and gas exchange traits. We suggest how future research might use available data and fill data gaps.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)340-358
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number2
Early online date22 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Susanne Scheffknecht for preparing GBIF and Bioclim data. Peter Vesk, K.C. Burns and an anonymous reviewer provided helpful comments that improved the manuscript. F.N.R. was supported by productivity fellowships (306796/2020‐1) from the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq)—Brazil; K.W. received funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (WA 3936/1‐1). M. Clearwater and students assisted with data collection in New Zealand.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Journal of Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society


  • epiphyte ecology
  • growth form
  • leaf traits
  • nutrient relations
  • plant functional traits
  • trait network
  • water relations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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