Aims We present the first global map of vascular plant species richness by ecoregion and compare these results with the published literature on global priorities for plant conservation. In so doing, we assess the state of floristic knowledge across ecoregions as described in floras, checklists, and other published documents and pinpoint geographical gaps in our understanding of the global vascular plant flora. Finally, we explore the relationships between plant species richness by ecoregion and our knowledge of the flora, and between plant richness and the human footprint – a spatially explicit measure of the loss and degradation of natural habitats and ecosystems as a result of human activities.
Methods Richness estimates for the 867 terrestrial ecoregions of the world were derived from published richness data of c. 1800 geographical units. We applied one of four methods to assess richness, depending on data quality. These included collation and interpretation of published data, use of species–area curves to extrapolate richness, use of taxon-based data, and estimates derived from other ecoregions within the same biome.
Results The highest estimate of plant species richness is in the Borneo lowlands ecoregion (10,000 species) followed by nine ecoregions located in Central and South America with ≥ 8000 species; all are found within the Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests biome. Among the 51 ecoregions with ≥ 5000 species, only five are located in temperate regions. For 43% of the 867 ecoregions, data quality was considered good or moderate. Among biomes, adequate data are especially lacking for flooded grasslands and flooded savannas. We found a significant correlation between species richness and data quality for only a few biomes, and, in all of these cases, our results indicated that species-rich ecoregions are better studied than those poor in vascular plants. Similarly, only in a few biomes did we find significant correlations between species richness and the human footprint, all of which were positive.
Main conclusions The work presented here sets the stage for comparisons of degree of concordance of plant species richness with plant endemism and vertebrate species richness: important analyses for a comprehensive global biodiversity strategy. We suggest: (1) that current global plant conservation strategies be reviewed to check if they cover the most outstanding examples of regions from each of the world's major biomes, even if these examples are species-poor compared with other biomes; (2) that flooded grasslands and flooded savannas should become a global priority in collecting and compiling richness data for vascular plants; and (3) that future studies which rely upon species–area calculations do not use a uniform parameter value but instead use values derived separately for subregions.