Plant community structure in tropical rain forest fragments of the Western Ghats, India
ABSTRACT Changes in tree, liana, and understory plant diversity and community composition in five tropical rain forest fragments varying in area (18-2600 ha) and disturbance levels were studied on the Valparai plateau, Western Ghats. Systematic sampling using small quadrats (totaling 4 ha for trees and lianas, 0.16 ha for understory plants) enumerated 312 species in 103 families: 1968 trees (144 species), 2250 lianas (60 species), and 6123 understory plants (108 species). Tree species density, stem density, and basal area were higher in the three larger (> 100 ha) rain forest fragments but were negatively correlated with disturbance scores rather than area per se. Liana species density, stem density, and basal area were higher in moderately disturbed and lower in heavily disturbed fragments than in the three larger fragments. Understory species density was highest in the highly disturbed 18-ha fragment, due to weedy invasive species occurring with rain forest plants. Nonmetric multidimensional scaling and Mantel tests revealed significant and similar patterns of floristic variation suggesting similar effects of disturbance on community compositional change for the three life-forms. The five fragments encompassed substantial plant diversity in the regional landscape, harbored at least 70 endemic species (3.21% of the endemic flora of the Western Ghats-Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot), and supported many endemic and threatened animals. The study indicates the significant conservation value of rain forest fragments in the Western Ghats, signals the need to protect them from further disturbances, and provides useful benchmarks for restoration and monitoring efforts.