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C R Biol. 2009 Feb-Mar;332(2-3):120-8. doi: 10.1016/j.crvi.2008.08.018. Epub 2008 Nov 29.

Epiphytism in ferns: diversity and history.

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  • 1UMR 5143 CNRS, Paléodiversité et paléoenvironnements, Muséum national d'histoire naturelle and Université Pierre-et-Marie-Curie, 57, rue Cuvier, CC48, 75231 Paris cedex 05, France.


As for other vascular plants, numerous adaptive strategies have been selected in epiphytic ferns in order to survive in a constraining and desiccating environment and thus to prevent dehydration and/or to access to water and nutrients. Here we present some of the specializations that allow ferns to survive in this particular habitat. Some of the most spectacular epiphytic specializations are observed in the Polypodiaceae family, involving humus-collectors which entrap humus in specialized organs, and ant-plant mutualism strategies. We then address the question of epiphytism in an evolutionary context. There is little fossil evidence of vascular epiphytes. Inferring the evolution of epiphytism in extant ferns shows that diversification of major living epiphytic groups mostly occurred in the Tertiary. Finally, we focus on the Hymenophyllaceae family which provides an original example of hygrophilous epiphytic strategy that is unique in vascular plants.

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