The nutrient status of epiphytes and their host trees along an elevational gradient in Costa Rica

Catherine L. Cardelús, Michelle C. Mack

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


Vascular epiphytes are a conspicuous and highly diverse group in tropical wet forests; yet, we understand little about their mineral nutrition across sites. In this study, we examined the mineral nutrition of three dominant vascular epiphyte groups: ferns, orchids, and bromeliads, and their host trees from samples collected along a 2600 m elevational gradient in the tropical wet forests of Costa Rica. We predicted that the mineral nutrition of ferns, orchids, and bromeliads would differ because of their putative differences in nutrient acquisition mechanisms and nutrient sources-atmospherically dependent, foliar feeding bromeliads would have lower nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) concentrations and more depleted δ15N values than those in canopy soil-rooted ferns because canopy soil is higher in available N, and more enriched in δ15N than the atmospheric sources of precipitation and throughfall. We also predicted that epiphyte foliar chemistry would mirror that of host trees because of the likely contribution of host trees to the nutrient cycle of epiphytes via foliar leaching and litter contributions to canopy soil. In the same vein, we predicted that epiphyte and host tree foliar chemistry would vary with elevation reflecting ecosystem-level nutrients-soil N availability increases and P availability decreases with increasing elevation. Our results confirmed that canopy soil-rooted epiphytes had higher N concentrations than atmospheric epiphytes; however, our predictions were not confirmed with respect to P which did not vary among groups indicating fixed P availability within sites. In addition, foliar δ15N values did not match our prediction in that canopy soil-rooted as well as atmospheric epiphytes had variable signatures. Discriminant function analysis (DFA) on foliar measurements determined that ferns, orchids, and bromeliads are statistically distinct in mineral nutrition. We also found that P concentrations of ferns and orchids, but not bromeliads, were significantly correlated with those of host trees indicating a possible link in their mineral nutrition's via canopy soil. Interestingly, we did not find any patterns of epiphyte foliar chemistry with elevation. These data indicate that the mineral nutrition of the studied epiphyte groups are distinct and highly variable within sites and the diverse uptake mechanisms of these epiphyte groups enhance resource partitioning which may be a mechanism for species richness maintenance in tropical forest canopies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)25-37
Number of pages13
JournalPlant Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Discriminant function analysis
  • Epiphytes
  • Host tree
  • La Selva Biological Station
  • Natural abundance isotopes
  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Plant mineral nutrition
  • Resource partitioning
  • Tropical forest

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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