Aim We examined phytogeographical patterns of West Indian orchids, and related island area and maximum elevation with orchid species richness and endemism. We expected strong species–area relationships, but that these would differ between low and montane island groups. In so far as maximum island elevation is a surrogate for habitat diversity, we anticipated a strong relationship with maximum elevation and both species richness and endemism for montane islands.
Location The West Indies.
Methods Our data included 49 islands and 728 species. Islands were classified as either montane (≥ 300 m elevation) or low (< 300 m). Linear and multivariate regression analyses were run to detect relationships between either area or maximum island elevation and species richness or the number of island endemic species.
Results For all 49 islands, the species–area relationship was strong, producing a z-value of 0.47 (slope of the regression line) and explaining 46% of the variation. For 18 relatively homogeneous, low islands we found a non-significant slope of z = −0.01 that explained only 0.1% of the variation. The 31 montane islands had a highly significant species–area relationship, with z = 0.49 and accounting for 65% of the variation. Species numbers were also strongly related to maximum island elevation. For all islands < 750 km2, we found a small-island effect, which reduced the species–area relationship to a non-significant z = 0.16, with only 5% of the variation explained by the model. Species–area relationships for montane islands of at least 750 km2 were strong and significant, but maximum elevation was the best predictor of species richness and accounted for 79% of the variation. The frequency of single-island endemics was high (42%) but nearly all occurred on just nine montane islands (300 species). The taxonomic distribution of endemics was also skewed, suggesting that seed dispersability, while remarkable in some taxa, is very limited in others. Montane island endemics showed strong species–area and species–elevation relationships.
Main conclusions Area and elevation are good predictors of orchid species diversity and endemism in the West Indies, but these associations are driven by the extraordinarily strong relationships of large, montane islands. The species richness of low islands showed no significant relationship with either variable. A small-island effect exists, but the montane islands had a significant relationship between species diversity and maximum elevation. Thus, patterns of Caribbean orchid diversity are dependent on an interplay between area and topographic diversity.