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Flora and vegetation of the Guayana highlands : past dynamics, global warming and conservation guidelines; Flora i vegetació de les Terres de Guayana : dinàmica del passat, escalfament global i directrius de conservació

AuthorsSafont, Elisabet
KeywordsEnvironmental protection
Plant ecology
Climatic changes
Ciudad Guayana (Venezuela)
Issue Date9-Feb-2016
PublisherUniversidad de Barcelona
AbstractThis thesis is aimed at the study of the flora and vegetation of the Guayana Highlands (GH), a set of -50 table mountains (called tepuis) located in the Guayana Shield of northern South America. Special emphasis is put on the potential upward migration of vascular plants as a response to global warming and the suggestion of conservation strategies. The tepui summits contain exceptional diversity and endemism of vascular plants, with more than 2400 known species, of which 30% would be endemics. In this study, the results of the Altitudinal Range Displacement analysis suggest that 30-50% of the GH endemic species could disappear due to total habitat loss by 2100 according to the most optimistic (B1) and pessimistic (A2) warming scenarios, respectively. An Environmental Impact Value has been calculated for each threatened species for a subsequent classification of these species into priority categories (10 for B1 and 13 for A2), which should be used in a chronological sequence to guide conservation and research actions. Subsequently, flora and vegetation approaches have been applied for the verification of the migratory phenomenon in the GH. Since this verification is based on the comparison of inventories conducted at different times, the first necessary step is to establish a baseline. The Roraima-tepui summit (2810 m elevation) has been selected for that purpose, as it is the best well-known tepui from the botanical point of view. The floristic survey of this tepuian summit has yielded 227 species, including 44 novelties since the publication of the Flora of the Venezuelan Guayana, one species new for science (Epidendrum sp. nov.), and 13 exotics, among which Poa annua and Polypogon elongatus (Poaceae) show the highest invasive potential. Five main plant communities have been identified: three herbaceous, one shrubland, and one forest formation, with their corresponding diagnostic species. An environmental characterization of these communities has been also performed. Finally, palaeoecological records may provide valuable information of the species' responses to past environmental changes, which is not available from short-term ecological observations. In this thesis, a palynological analysis of a sedimentary sequence from Uei-tepui (2150 m elevation) has been conducted to record the vegetation changes occurred in the last 2000 years in this tepui and to investigate the potential drivers involved. At -810 cal yr BP (AD 1140), a peak of fire incidence, coeval with a decrease in regional precipitation, reduced the woody elements of meadows (mainly Biophytum) and the Bonnetia cloud forests. Forest recovery to its previous abundance occurred slowly and elapsed several centuries to be completed after fire disturbance. In the mid-18th century, forests and meadows were replaced by Cyrilla racemiflora shrublands, coinciding with intense fires, synchronous with the arrival of Europeans to the Gran Sabana (GS) uplands. These results suggest that fire has been the main factor in the shaping of Uei¬tepui vegetation during the last two millennia. The documented local fire events were most likely caused by human activities and reached the summit from the GS, probably favoured by climatic conditions. The last local fire leading to forest clearing and the establishment of present-day vegetation most likely took place in the AD 1920s. The preservation of the GH flora in front of global warming should be addressed, at least partially, through ex situ conservation techniques, due to the nature of the threat (habitat loss).
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