Discovery of a diverse cave flora in China

Alexandre K. Monro
Nadia Bystriakova
Longfei Fu


Few studies document plants in caves. Our field observations of a widespread and seemingly angiosperm-rich cave flora in SW China lead us to test the following hypotheses, 1) SW China caves contain a diverse vascular plant flora, 2) that this is a relic of a largely absent forest type lacking endemic species, and 3) that the light environment plants occupy in caves is not distinct from non-cave habitats. To do so we surveyed 61 caves and used species accumulation curves (SAC) to estimate the total diversity of this flora and used a subsample of 14 caves to characterise the light environment. We used regional floras and existing conservation assessments to evaluate the conservation value of this flora. We used observations on human disturbance within caves to evaluate anthropogenic activities. Four-hundred-and-eighteen vascular plant species were documented with SACs predicting a total diversity of 529–846. Ninety-three percent of the species documented are known karst forest species, 7% are endemic to caves and 81% of the species are angiosperms. We demonstrate that the light environment in caves is distinct to that of terrestrial habitats and that a subset of the flora likely grow in the lowest light levels documented for vascularised plants. Our results suggest that the proportion of species threatened with extinction is like that for the terrestrial habitat and that almost half of the entrance caverns sampled showed signs of human disturbance. We believe that this is the first time that such an extensive sample of cave flora has been undertaken and that such a diverse vascular plant flora has been observed in caves which we predict occurs elsewhere in SE Asia. We argue that the cave flora is an extension of the karst forest understory present prior to catastrophic deforestation in the 20thC. We suggest that within SW China caves serve as both refuges and a valuable source of germplasm for the restoration of karst forest. We also propose that caves represent a distinct habitat for plants that is most similar to