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Tillandsia bourgaei growing on an oak tree in Mexico Tillandsia bourgaei.jpg
Tillandsia bourgaei growing on an oak tree in Mexico

An epiphyte is an organism that grows on the surface of a plant and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, water (in marine environments) or from debris accumulating around it. The plants on which epiphytes grow are called phorophytes. Epiphytes take part in nutrient cycles and add to both the diversity and biomass of the ecosystem in which they occur, like any other organism. They are an important source of food for many species. Typically, the older parts of a plant will have more epiphytes growing on them. Epiphytes differ from parasites in that they grow on other plants for physical support and do not necessarily affect the host negatively. An organism that grows on another organism that is not a plant may be called an epibiont. [1] Epiphytes are usually found in the temperate zone (e.g., many mosses, liverworts, lichens, and algae) or in the tropics (e.g., many ferns, cacti, orchids, and bromeliads). [2] Epiphyte species make good houseplants due to their minimal water and soil requirements. [3] Epiphytes provide a rich and diverse habitat for other organisms including animals, fungi, bacteria, and myxomycetes. [4]


Epiphyte is one of the subdivisions of the Raunkiær system. The term epiphytic derives from the Greek epi- (meaning 'upon') and phyton (meaning 'plant'). Epiphytic plants are sometimes called "air plants" because they do not root in soil. However, there are many aquatic species of algae that are epiphytes on other aquatic plants (seaweeds or aquatic angiosperms).

Terrestrial epiphytes

The best-known epiphytic plants include mosses, orchids, and bromeliads such as Spanish moss (of the genus Tillandsia ), but epiphytes may be found in every major group of the plant kingdom. 89% of terrestrial epiphyte species (about 24,000) are flowering plants. The second largest group are the leptosporangiate ferns, with about 2800 species (10% of epiphytes). In fact, about one third of all ferns are epiphytes. [5] The third largest group is clubmosses, with 190 species, followed by a handful of species in each of the spikemosses, other ferns, Gnetales, and cycads. [6]

The first important monograph on epiphytic plant ecology was written by A.F.W. Schimper (Die epiphytische Vegetation Amerikas, 1888). Assemblages of large epiphytes occur most abundantly in moist tropical forests, but mosses and lichens occur as epiphytes in almost all biomes. In Europe there are no dedicated epiphytic plants using roots, but rich assemblages of mosses and lichens grow on trees in damp areas (mainly the western coastal fringe), and the common polypody fern grows epiphytically along branches. Rarely, grass, small bushes or small trees may grow in suspended soils up trees (typically in a rot-hole).

Holo-epiphyte or Hemi-epiphyte

Epiphytes however, can generally be categorized into holo-epiphytes or hemi-epiphytes. A holo-epiphyte is a plant that spends its whole life cycle without contact with the ground and a hemi-epiphyte is a plant that spends only half of its life without the ground before the roots can reach or make contact with the ground. [7] Orchids are a common example of holo-epiphytes and Strangler Figs are an example of hemi-epiphytes.

Plant nutrient relations

Epiphytes are not connected to the soil, and consequently must get nutrients from other sources, such as fog, dew, rain and mist, [8] or from nutrients being released from the ground rooted plants by decomposition or leaching, and dinitrogen fixation. [8] Epiphytic plants attached to their hosts high in the canopy have an advantage over herbs restricted to the ground where there is less light and herbivores may be more active. Epiphytic plants are also important to certain animals that may live in their water reservoirs, such as some types of frogs and arthropods.

Epiphytes can have a significant effect on the microenvironment of their host, and of ecosystems where they are abundant, as they hold water in the canopy and decrease water input to the soil. [9] Some non-vascular epiphytes such as lichens and mosses are well known for their ability to take up water rapidly. [10] Epiphytes create a significantly cooler and more moist environment in the host plant canopy, potentially greatly reducing water loss by the host through transpiration.

Marine epiphytes

The ecology of epiphytes in marine environments differs from those in terrestrial ecosystems. Epiphytes in marine systems are species of algae, bacteria, fungi, sponges, bryozoans, ascidians, protozoa, crustaceans, molluscs and any other sessile organism that grows on the surface of a plant, typically seagrasses or algae. [11] [12] Settlement of epiphytic species is influenced by a number of factors including light, temperature, currents, nutrients, and trophic interactions. Algae are the most common group of epiphytes in marine systems. [12] Photosynthetic epiphytes account for a large amount of the photosynthesis in systems in which they occur. [13] This is typically between 20 and 60% of the total primary production of the ecosystem. [12] They are a general group of organisms and are highly diverse, providing food for a great number of fauna. [13] Snail and nudibranch species are two common grazers of epiphytes. [12] Epiphyte species composition and the amount of epiphytes can be indicative of changes in the environment. Recent increases in epiphyte abundance have been linked to excessive nitrogen put into the environment from farm runoff and storm water. High abundance of epiphytes are considered detrimental to the plants that they grow on often causing damage or death, particularly in seagrasses. [11] This is because too many epiphytes can block access to sunlight or nutrients. Epiphytes in marine systems are known to grow quickly with very fast generation times. [14]

See also

Related Research Articles

This glossary of ecology is a list of definitions of terms and concepts in ecology and related fields. For more specific definitions from other glossaries related to ecology, see Glossary of biology, Glossary of evolutionary biology, and Glossary of environmental science.

Pioneer species First species to colonize or inhabite damaged ecosystems

Pioneer species are hardy species which are the first to colonize barren environments or previously biodiverse steady-state ecosystems that have been disrupted, such as by fire.

Tasmanian temperate rainforests Terrestrial ecoregion in Tasmania, Australia

The Tasmanian temperate rain forests are a temperate broadleaf and mixed forests ecoregion in western Tasmania. The ecoregion is part of the Australasian realm, which includes Tasmania and Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, New Caledonia, and adjacent islands.

Lithophyte Plants that grow on rocks

Lithophytes are plants that grow in or on rocks. They can be classified as either epilithic or endolithic; epilithic lithophytes grow on the surfaces of rocks, while endolithic lithophytes grow in the crevices of rocks. Lithophytes can also be classified as being either obligate or facultative. Obligate lithophytes grow solely on rocks, while facultative lithophytes will grow partially on a rock and on another substrate simultaneously.

Epidendroideae Subfamily of orchids

Epidendroideae is a subfamily of plants in the orchid family, Orchidaceae. Epidendroideae is larger than all the other orchid subfamilies together, comprising more than 15,000 species in 576 genera. Most epidendroid orchids are tropical epiphytes, typically with pseudobulbs. There are, however, some terrestrials such as Epipactis and even a few myco-heterotrophs, which are parasitic upon mycorrhizal fungi.

Primary succession Gradual growth and change of an ecosystem on new substrate

Primary succession is the beginning step of ecological succession after an extreme disturbance, which usually occurs in an environment devoid of vegetation and other organisms. These environments are typically lacking in soil, as disturbances like lava flow or retreating glaciers shred the environment of nutrients.

<i>Catopsis berteroniana</i> Species of carnivorous plant

Catopsis berteroniana, commonly known as the powdery strap airplant or the lantern of the forest, is an epiphytic bromeliad thought to be a possible carnivorous plant, similar to Brocchinia reducta, although the evidence is equivocal. Its native range is from southern Florida to southern Brazil. It generally grows on the unshaded twigs of trees, and has been shown experimentally to trap more insects in its tank than other bromeliads of comparable size. There are several other species in the genus, none of which is believed to be carnivorous.

Aquatic ecosystem Ecosystem in a body of water

An aquatic ecosystem is an ecosystem in and surrounding a body of water, in contrast to land-based terrestrial ecosystems. Aquatic ecosystems contain communities of organisms that are dependent on each other and on their environment. The two main types of aquatic ecosystems are marine ecosystems and freshwater ecosystems. Freshwater ecosystems may be lentic ; lotic ; and wetlands.

Biological soil crust

Biological soil crusts are communities of living organisms on the soil surface in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. They are found throughout the world with varying species composition and cover depending on topography, soil characteristics, climate, plant community, microhabitats, and disturbance regimes. Biological soil crusts perform important ecological roles including carbon fixation, nitrogen fixation and soil stabilization; they alter soil albedo and water relations and affect germination and nutrient levels in vascular plants. They can be damaged by fire, recreational activity, grazing and other disturbances and can require long time periods to recover composition and function. Biological soil crusts are also known as biocrusts or as cryptogamic, microbiotic, microphytic, or cryptobiotic soils.

Forest ecology Study of interactions between the biota and environment in forets

Forest ecology is the scientific study of the interrelated patterns, processes, flora, fauna and ecosystems in forests. The management of forests is known as forestry, silviculture, and forest management. A forest ecosystem is a natural woodland unit consisting of all plants, animals, and micro-organisms in that area functioning together with all of the non-living physical (abiotic) factors of the environment.

A lithosere is a plant succession that begins life on a newly exposed rock surface, such as one left bare as a result of glacial retreat, tectonic uplift as in the formation of a raised beach, or volcanic eruptions. For example, the lava fields of Eldgjá in Iceland where Laki and Katla fissures erupted in the year 935 and the solidified lava has, over time, begun to form a lithosere.

Ecological facilitation or probiosis describes species interactions that benefit at least one of the participants and cause harm to neither. Facilitations can be categorized as mutualisms, in which both species benefit, or commensalisms, in which one species benefits and the other is unaffected. This article addresses both the mechanisms of facilitation and the increasing information available concerning the impacts of facilitation on community ecology.


An epibiont is an organism that lives on the surface of another living organism. An epibiont is, by definition, harmless to its host. In this sense, the interaction between the two organisms can be considered neutralistic or commensalistic; as opposed to being, for example, parasitic, in which case one organism benefits at the expense of the other, or mutualistic, in which both organisms obtain some explicit benefit from their coexistence. Examples of common epibionts are barnacles, remoras, and algae, many of which live on the surfaces of larger marine organisms such as whales, sharks, sea turtles, and mangrove trees. The host of the epibiont is typically referred to as the basibiont.

Flora of Australia Plant species of Australia

The flora of Australia comprises a vast assemblage of plant species estimated to over 30,000 vascular and 14,000 non-vascular plants, 250,000 species of fungi and over 3,000 lichens. The flora has strong affinities with the flora of Gondwana, and below the family level has a highly endemic angiosperm flora whose diversity was shaped by the effects of continental drift and climate change since the Cretaceous. Prominent features of the Australian flora are adaptations to aridity and fire which include scleromorphy and serotiny. These adaptations are common in species from the large and well-known families Proteaceae (Banksia), Myrtaceae, and Fabaceae.

Plant community Collection of native photosynthetic organisms

A plant community is a collection or association of plant species within a designated geographical unit, which forms a relatively uniform patch, distinguishable from neighboring patches of different vegetation types. The components of each plant community are influenced by soil type, topography, climate and human disturbance. In many cases there are several soil types present within a given plant community. This is because the soil type within an area is influenced by two factors, the rate at which water infiltrates or exits the soil, as well as the rate at which organic matter enters or decays from the soil. Plant communities are studied substantially by ecologists, due to providing information on the effects of dispersal, tolerance to environmental conditions, and response to disturbance of a variety of plant species, information valuable to the comprehension of various plant community dynamics.

Stratification (vegetation) Vertical layering of a habitat

Stratification in the field of ecology refers to the vertical layering of a habitat; the arrangement of vegetation in layers. It classifies the layers of vegetation largely according to the different heights to which their plants grow. The individual layers are inhabited by different animal and plant communities (stratozones).

A habitat cascade is a common type of a facilitation cascade. where “indirect positive effects on focal organisms are mediated by successive formation or modification of biogenic habitat”.

<i>Rhytidiadelphus loreus</i> Species of moss in the family Hylocomiaceae

Rhytidiadelphus loreus, also commonly known as lanky moss, is a nonvascular "feather moss" species that is a key component of a healthy, thriving forest ecosystem. Lanky moss grows in North America, Canada and Europe. It is primarily a coastal species that grows in moist, coniferous forests. It grows on decaying logs, the forest floor and as an epiphyte on living trees. Its key functions in the ecosystem are water retention and temperature insulation.

Canopy soils, also known as arboreal soils, exist in areas of the forest canopy where branches, crevices, or some other physical feature on a tree can accumulate organic matter, such as leaves or fine branches. Eventually, this organic matter weathers into some semblance of a soil, and can reach depths of 30 cm in some temperate rainforests. Epiphytes can take root in this thin soil, which accelerates the development of the soil by adding organic material and physically breaking up material with their root system. Common epiphytes in the canopy soils in temperate rainforests include mosses, ferns, and lichens. Epiphytes on trees in the temperate zone are often ubiquitous and can cover entire trees. Some host trees house up to 6.5 tons dry weight of epiphytic biomass, which can equate to more than 4x of its own foliar mass. This massive presence means their dynamics need to be better understood in order to fully understand forest dynamics. The nutrients that become stored within canopy soils can then be utilized by the epiphytes that grow in them, and even the tree that the canopy soil is accumulating in through the growth of canopy roots. This storage allows nutrients to be more closely cycled through an ecosystem, and prevents nutrients from being washed out of the system.

<i>Antitrichia curtipendula</i> Species of moss

Antitrichia curtipendula is a species of feather-moss found predominantly in western North America and the western coast of Europe.


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