• Abiotic factors;
  • altitudinal gradient;
  • Andes;
  • biotic factors;
  • climate change;
  • distribution;
  • diversity;
  • ferns


Aim  To search for differences in the spatial variability of upper and lower elevational distribution limits of tropical ferns, based on the assumption that these are determined to different degrees by biotic and abiotic factors.

Location  The Yungas biogeographical region, in the Bolivian Andes.

Methods  From a data base of > 25,000 herbarium records, we analysed the skewness of the elevational distribution of 220 montane pteridophyte species, each with  15 records. Additionally, we compared the spatial variability of upper and lower elevational range limits of ferns in 351 plots of 400 m2 each along four elevational transects separated by 15–450 km.

Results  Individual species showed variable elevational distribution patterns, ranging from symmetric to asymmetric, i.e. downward and upward skewed, but overall there was a statistically significant trend towards asymmetric distributions with abrupt upper limits and diffuse lower limits. This trend, however, was almost exclusively due to terrestrial species occurring at and above the current timberline. The analysis of the elevational transects revealed no significant trends.

Main conclusions  The downward-skewed distributional abundance of terrestrial, open-country ferns near the timberline appears to be a result of the extensive forest destruction that has lowered the timberline in the high Andes by 500–800 m, opening up habitats for a restricted suite of species. Our study shows that a limited number of species can cause a general trend in the overall data set, and that failure to extract these data may result in unsupported conclusions, in our case to assign a greater importance to biotic and abiotic factors in the elevational limitation of plants at lower and upper elevations, respectively.