Biogeography of prostrate-leaved geophytes in semi-arid South Africa: Hypotheses on functionality

Esler K.J. ; Rundel P.W. ; Vorster P. (1999)


Nowhere is the species diversity of geophytes greater than in the five mediterranean-climate ecosystems of the world. Of these, the Cape mediterranean zone of South Africa is the most speciose. While the relative diversity and importance of geophytes of all of the other four mediterranean regions of the world drops off sharply as one moves into adjacent winter-rainfall desert regions, geophytes in the semi-arid to arid Succulent Karoo (including Namaqualand) remain a very important component of the flora, both in terms of abundance and diversity (comprising 13 to 29% of the regional floras in this region). Apart from species richness, there are also a number of interesting geophyte growth forms in this region. One unusual growth form is geophytes with flattened leaves that lie prostrate on the soil surface. At least eight families (Amaryllidaceae, Colchicaceae, Eriospermaceae, Geraniaceae, Hyacinthaceae, Iridaceae, Orchidaceae and Oxalidaceae) exhibit this growth form. While this growth form is relatively common in many geophyte lineages in the Succulent Karoo biome and the Cape mediterranean zone (Fynbos biome), and occurs infrequently through the summer-rainfall temperate regions of Africa, it is virtually absent in other regions worldwide. A null hypothesis is that the prostrate leaved trait is a neutral characteristic, however biogeographical data do not support this. A neutral trait would be unlikely to show such a clear pattern of distribution. Several alternative hypotheses on the adaptive significance of this growth form are discussed. These include: avoidance of herbivory, reduction in competition from neighbors, creation of a CO2 enriched environment below the leaves, reduction of water loss around the roots, reduction of water loss through transpiration, precipitation of dew on the leaves and maintenance of optimal leaf temperatures for growth.

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