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Bird’s nest fern epiphytes facilitate herpetofaunal arboreality and climate refuge in two paleotropic canopies


In tropical forests, epiphytes increase habitat complexity and provision services rare to canopy environments, such as water retention, nutrient cycling, and microclimate refuge. These services facilitate species diversity and coexistence in terrestrial ecosystems, and while their utility in forest ecosystems is appreciated for the Bromeliaceae of the Neotropics, fewer studies have examined the role of Paleotropic epiphytes in ecological niche theory. Here, we compare herpetofaunal presence, abundance, and diversity of in bird’s nest fern (Asplenium nidus complex; BNF) to other microhabitats in Madagascar and the Philippines. We measure BNF fern microclimates, examine temporal use of canopy microhabitats, and test models of fern characteristics hypothesized to predict herpetofaunal use. In both countries, one in five BNFs were occupied by herpetofauna, mostly amphibians, and species using BNFs were highly dissimilar from those in other microhabitats. Herpetofaunal presence and abundance were greater in BNFs than in other canopy microhabitats and were most commonly used during the day when fern temperatures were highly buffered. Finally, BNF area was the best predictor of herpetofaunal presence and abundance, compared to canopy cover and BNF height. Importantly, these patterns remained consistent despite the distinct phylogenetic histories of our two communities (Asian versus African). Our results suggests that BNFs and their microclimate services play a critical role in the ecology of two Paleotropic forests, and facilitate the use of canopy habitats by climate-sensitive species. However, future studies are needed to assess the consistency of BNFs’ utility as a microclimate refuge across their large range.

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We first extend a great deal of gratitude to our Ranomafana guide, Justin Solo, for his exemplary herpetofaunal identification expertise, logistical knowledge, and tree climbing abilities. We also thank Andrea VanDerWal, Patricia Wright, and all the Centre Valbio staff, as well as MICET for their logistical and in-country support. Another thank you to Alex Baecher for his assistance with Fig. 1. The National Geographic Society generously provided financial support for this research (Grant No. 9480-14).

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BRS designed and funded the study. CMS, BRS, EWB, and LRA conducted fieldwork. CMS and BRS analyzed the data. CMS and BRS wrote the manuscript. All authors reviewed and gave their final approval of the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Christa M. Seidl or Brett R. Scheffers.

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Communicated by David M. Watson.

This manuscript presents a combination of ecological observations and empirical comparisons in two biodiverse forests and highlights a testable phenomenon for how epiphytes create critical habitat for canopy herpetofauna. The results show that a particular epiphyte, the Asplenium bird’s nest fern, is a preferentially occupied canopy habitat in two geographically divergent forests by phylogenetically distinct species. The paper presents a novel microclimate-area relationship theory for the use of canopy habitats, suggesting that the driver of preferential herpetofaunal use and facilitator of herpetofaunal arboreality is the epiphyte’s microclimate buffering services. These work positions bird’s nest ferns as a keystone canopy habitat in parts of the Paleotropics, in need of further study and conservation protection.

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Seidl, C.M., Basham, E.W., Andriamahohatra, L.R. et al. Bird’s nest fern epiphytes facilitate herpetofaunal arboreality and climate refuge in two paleotropic canopies. Oecologia 192, 297–309 (2020).

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  • Ecosystem function and services
  • Asplenium nidus
  • Canopy
  • Epiphytes
  • Microclimate
  • Arboreality