Islands in the desert: environmental distribution modelling of endemic flora reveals the extent of Pleistocene tropical relict vegetation in southern Arabia

Ann Bot. 2019 Oct 18;124(3):411-422. doi: 10.1093/aob/mcz085.


Background and aims: Southern Arabia is a global biodiversity hotspot with a high proportion of endemic desert-adapted plants. Here we examine evidence for a Pleistocene climate refugium in the southern Central Desert of Oman, and its role in driving biogeographical patterns of endemism.

Methods: Distribution data for seven narrow-range endemic plants were collected systematically across 195 quadrats, together with incidental and historic records. Important environmental variables relevant to arid coastal areas, including night-time fog and cloud cover, were developed for the study area. Environmental niche models using presence/absence data were built and tuned for each species, and spatial overlap was examined.

Key results: A region of the Jiddat Al Arkad reported independent high model suitability for all species. Examination of environmental data across southern Oman indicates that the Jiddat Al Arkad displays a regionally unique climate with higher intra-annual stability, due in part to the influence of the southern monsoon. Despite this, the relative importance of environmental variables was highly differentiated among species, suggesting that characteristic variables such as coastal fog are not major cross-species predictors at this scale.

Conclusions: The co-occurrence of a high number of endemic study species within a narrow monsoon-influenced region is indicative of a refugium with low climate change velocity. Combined with climate analysis, our findings provide strong evidence for a southern Arabian Pleistocene refugium in Oman's Central Desert. We suggest that this refugium has acted as an isolated temperate and mesic island in the desert, resulting in the evolution of these narrow-range endemic flora. Based on the composition of species, this system may represent the northernmost remnant of a continuous belt of mesic vegetation formerly ranging from Africa to Asia, with close links to the flora of East Africa. This has significant implications for future conservation of endemic plants in an arid biodiversity hotspot.

Keywords: Arabian Peninsula; Central Desert; Oman; Pleistocene; coastal fog desert; desert endemic; ecological niche modelling; important plant areas; refugia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Africa, Eastern
  • Arabia
  • Asia
  • Islands
  • Phylogeny*
  • Plants*
  • Tropical Climate