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Distribution of vascular plant species richness and endemic richness along the Himalayan elevation gradient in Nepal


Ole R. Vetaas, Department of Botany, University of Bergen, Allégaten 41, N-5007 Bergen, Norway, E-mail:


Aim Species richness and endemic richness vary along elevation gradients, but not necessarily in the same way. This study tests if the maxima in gamma diversity for flowering plants and the endemic subset of these plants are coherent or not.

Location The study was conducted in Nepal, between 1000 and 5000 m a.s.l.

Methods We used published data on distribution and elevational ranges of the Nepalese flora to interpolate presence between maximum and minimum elevations. Correlation, regression and graphical analyses were used to evaluate the diversity pattern between 1000 and 5000 m a.s.l.

Results The interval of maximum species endemic to Nepal or the Himalayas (3800–4200 m) is above the interval of maximum richness (1500–2500 m). The exact location of maximum species density is uncertain and its accuracy depends on ecologically sound estimates of area in the elevation zones. There is no positive statistically significant correlation between log-area and richness (total or endemic). Total richness is positively correlated with log-area-adjusted, i.e. estimated area adjusted for the degree of topographic heterogeneity. The proportion of endemic species increases steadily from low to high elevations. The peak in endemism (c. 4000 m) corresponds to the start of a rapid decrease in species richness above 4000 m. This may relate to the last glacial maximum (equilibrium line at c. 4000 m) that penetrated down to 2500–3000 m. This dynamic hard boundary may have caused an increase in the extinction rate above 4000 m, and enhanced the probability of isolation and facilitated speciation of neoendemics, especially among genera with a high proportion of polyploids.

Main conclusions The results reject the idea of corresponding maxima in endemic species and species richness in the lowlands tentatively deduced from Stevens’ elevational Rapoport effect. They confirm predictions based on hard boundary theory, but hard-boundaries should be viewed as dynamic rather than static when broad-scale biogeographical patterns with a historical component are being interpreted.