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Plant diversity and endemism in sub-Saharan tropical Africa




This paper has as its central aim the location of centres of species richness and endemism in the sub-Saharan African flora. Previous postulation of these centres has been based on an intuitive interpretation of distributional data; this paper provides a test of these centres. A second aim is to establish whether the two indices, richness and endemism, locate the same centres. Thirdly the relationship between species richness and endemism, and latitude and rainfall are explored.


The study area includes much of sub-Saharan Africa, but excludes the species-poor southern margin of the Sahara and the Namib–Kalahari regions.


Analyses were based on 1818 species, scored on a 2.5 × 2.5 degree grid. Species richness was inferred from a simple grid-diversity count; endemism was determined by three measures: the number of species restricted to two grids, the sum of the inverse of the ranges of the component species of each grid, and the proportion of the species in each grid that have restricted ranges.


The African flora shows a remarkably profound patterning, both in species richness and endemism. The two measures locate largely the same centres, although the rank order among them differs. These centres are: the Cape Floristic Region, East Coast, Congo-Zambezi watershed, Kivu, Upper and Lower Guinea. Richness is strongly related to maximum rainfall, but there are no obvious correlations between modern climate and endemism. Species richness and endemism north of the equator is much more concentrated into centres than south of the equator.

Main conclusions

There are strongly developed refugia in sub-Saharan Africa. North of the equator, these refugia are sharply delimited and rather small, separated by large areas of very low endemism. South of the equator endemism tends to be more generally distributed. Variation in species richness in sub-Saharan Africa can be explained largely by modern rainfall, while endemism may be related to palaeoclimatic fluctuations. Both species richness and endemism show a strong skewing towards the south, indicating that the fluctuations in the Sahara might have influenced the modern distribution of plants in Africa.