Questions: Do growth forms and vascular plant richness follow similar patterns along an altitudinal gradient? What are the driving mechanisms that structure richness patterns at the landscape scale?
Location: Southwest Ethiopian highlands.
Methods: Floristic and environmental data were collected from 74 plots, each covering 400 m2. The plots were distributed along altitudinal gradients. Boosted regression trees were used to derive the patterns of richness distribution along altitudinal gradients.
Results: Total vascular plant richness did not show any strong response to altitude. Contrasting patterns of richness were observed for several growth forms. Woody, graminoid and climber species richness showed a unimodal structure. However, each of these morphological groups had a peak of richness at different altitudes: graminoid species attained maximum importance at a lower elevations, followed by climbers and finally woody species at higher elevations. Fern species richness increased monotonically towards higher altitudes, but herbaceous richness had a dented structure at mid-altitudes. Soil sand fraction, silt, slope and organic matter were found to contribute a considerable amount of the predicted variance of richness for total vascular plants and growth forms.
Main Conclusions: Hump-shaped species richness patterns were observed for several growth forms. A mid-altitudinal richness peak was the result of a combination of climate-related water–energy dynamics, species–area relationships and local environmental factors, which have direct effects on plant physiological performance. However, altitude represents the composite gradient of several environmental variables that were interrelated. Thus, considering multiple gradients would provide a better picture of richness and the potential mechanisms responsible for the distribution of biodiversity in high-mountain regions of the tropics.