Aim To explore the variation in species richness along a subtropical elevation gradient, and evaluate how climatic variables explain the richness of the different life forms such as trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs and ferns.
Location The study was made in a subtropical to warm temperate region in the south-eastern part of Nepal, between 100 and 1500 m above sea level (a.s.l.).
Methods The number of species was counted in six plots (50 × 20 m) in each of the 15 100 m elevation bands covering the main physiognomic structures along an imaginary transect. Each species recorded was assigned to a life form. Potential evapotranspiration (PET, i.e. energy), mean annual rainfall (MAR), and their ratio (MI = moisture index) were evaluated as explanatory variables by means of generalized linear models (GLM). Each variable was tested individually, and in addition MAR and PET were used to test the water-energy dynamics model for each life form.
Results The richness of herbaceous species, including herbaceous climbers, was unrelated to any of the climate variables. PET was strongly negatively correlated with elevation, and the following relationships were found between increasing PET and richness: (i) shrubs, trees and total species (sum of all life forms) showed unimodal responses (ii) ferns decreased monotonically, and (iii) woody climbers increased monotonically. Richness of all woody groups increased monotonically with MAR and MI. The water-energy dynamics model explained 63% of the variation in shrubs, 67% for trees and 70% for woody species combined.
Main conclusions For the various herbaceous life forms (forbs, grasses, and herbaceous climbers) we found no significant statistical trends, whereas for woody life forms (trees, shrubs, and woody climbers) significant relationships were found with climate. E.M. O’Brien's macro-scale model based on water-energy dynamics was found to explain woody species richness at a finer scale along this elevational-climatic gradient.