Background: The páramo is a high-elevation biogeographical province in the northern Andes, known for its great biodiversity and ecosystem services. Because there have been very few biogeographic studies encompassing the entire province to date, this study aimed at conducting a phytogeographical regionalisation of the páramo. Specifically, (1) clustering analyses were conducted to identify the main phytogeographical units in the three altitudinal belts: sub-páramo, mid-páramo and super-páramo, and examine their diagnostic flora, (2) an ordination complemented the geo-climatic characterization of the obtained units and (3) a hierarchical classification transformation was obtained to evaluate the relationships between units.
Methods: The study area included the entire Andean páramo range in northern Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. The analyses were based on 1,647 phytosociological plots from the VegPáramo database. The K-means non-hierarchical clustering technique was used to obtain clusters identifiable as phytogeographical units, and the Ochiai fidelity index was calculated to identify their diagnostic species. A principal component analysis was conducted to obtain the geo-climatic characterization of each unit. Finally, the relationships between clusters were traced using a hierarchical plot-based classification.
Results: Fifteen clusters were obtained, 13 natural and two artificial, of which two represented the sub-páramo, nine the mid-páramo and four the super-páramo. Even though data representativeness was a potential limitation to segregate certain sub-páramo and super-páramo units, the overall bioregionalisation was robust and represented important latitudinal, altitudinal and climatic gradients.
Discussion: This study is the first to bioregionalise the páramo province based on a substantial widely distributed biological dataset, and therefore provides important novel scientific insight on its biogeography. The obtained phytogeographical units can be used to support further research on the páramo at smaller scale and on the humid Neotropical high-elevation ecosystems at broader-scale. Finally, several units were highlighted in our results as particularly worthy of further scientific and conservation focus.
Keywords: Andes; Bioregionalisation; Clustering; Diagnostic species; Phytogeography; Phytosociology; Principal component analysis; Vascular plants.