The Botanical Review

, Volume 67, Issue 1, pp 1–53 | Cite as

On the role of microenvironmental heterogeneity in the ecology and diversification of neotropical rain-forest palms (Arecaceae)

  • Jens-Christian Svenning


Microenvironmental heterogeneity is important in the ecology and diversification of the rich palm flora that inhabits neotropical rain forests. At small-0.1-102 m-scales, neotropical rain forests exhibit high heterogeneity in numerous environmental factors: canopy conditions, conspecifics, other plants, litter, soil factors, topography, and animal mutualists and pests. These aspects of microenvironmental heterogeneity affect the performance and the small-scale distribution of palms in numerous ways, often affecting different species differently. Notably, even subtle environmental variation can be of crucial ecological importance.

Microenvironmental heterogeneity promotes the local coexistence of palm species by niche differences among the species and probably also by mass effects and negative density dependence. Sympatric species of the same growth form often differ in terms of light requirements, edaphic-topographic preferences, and possibly also in seed-dispersal patterns, whereas mass effects are likely to account for the local occurrence of a share of the rare species. Density dependence seems to be frequent among large-seeded palms, but its importance needs to be assessed.

Microenvironmental heterogeneity is proposed to be an important diversity-generating factor in the neotropical palm flora through the process of parapatric speciation. This hypothesis is based on the observation that, in species-rich palm genera and species complexes, sympatric species or morphs often differ in edaphic-topographic preferences or in characteristics that confer differing light requirements and in traits that favor reproductive isolation.


La heterogeneidad microambiental es importante en la ecología y la diversificación de la rica flora de palmas que habita los bosques húmedos neotropicales. A pequeña escala (0.1-102 m), los bosques húmedos neotropicales exhiben una alta heterogeneidad en numerosos factores ambientales: las condiciones del dosel, los coespecíficos, las otras plantas, la broza, los factores del suelo, la topografia, y los mutualistas y parásites animales. Estos aspectos de la heterogeneidad microambiental afectan, de muchas maneras, el funcionamiento y la distribución a pequeña escala de las palmas, afectando a menudo distintas especies de modo diferente. Notablemente, aún una variación ambiental sutil puede ser de importancia ecológica crucial.

La heterogeneidad microambiental promueve la coexistencia local de las especies de palmas por diferencias de nichos entre las especies y probablemente también por “mass effects” y dependencia negativa de la densidad. Las especies simpátricas con la misma forma de crecimiento se diferencian a menudo en términos de sus requerimientos de luz, preferencias edáfico-topográficas y posiblemente también en los patrones de dispersión de semillas, mientras que “mass effects” probablemente explican la ocurrencia local de una parte de las especies raras. La dependencia de la densidad parece ser frecuente entre las palmas con semillas grandes, pero su importancia necesita ser evaluada.

Se propone que la heterogeneidad microambiental por el proceso de especiación parapátrica es un factor importante en la diversificación de la flora neotropical de palmas. Esta hipótesis se basa en la observatión de que en géneros de palmas con muchas especies y en complejos de especies, las especies o formas simpátricas se diferencian a menudo en preferencias edáfico-topográficas o en caracteristicas que les atribuyen diferentes requerimientos lumínicos y en los rasgos que favorecen el aislamiento reproductivo.


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Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jens-Christian Svenning
    • 1
  1. 1.Herbarium AAU Department of Systematic BotanyUniversity of AarhusAarhus C.Denmark

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