Positive species interactions (facilitation) play an important role in shaping the structures and species diversity of ecological communities, particularly under stressful environmental conditions. Epiphytes in rainforests often grow in multiple-species clumps, suggesting interspecies facilitation. However, little is known about the patterns and mechanisms of epiphyte co-occurrence. We assessed the interactions of two widespread epiphyte species, Asplenium antiquum and Haplopteris zosterifolia, by examining their co-occurrence and size-class association in the field. To elucidate factors controlling their interactions, we conducted reciprocal-removal and greenhouse-drought experiments, and nutrient and isotope analyses. Forty-five percent of H. zosterifolia co-occurred with A. antiquum, whereas only 17% of A. antiquum co-occurred with H. zosterifolia. Removing the fronds plus substrate of A. antiquum reduced the relative frond length and specific leaf area of H. zosterifolia, but removing fronds only had little effect. Removing H. zosterifolia had no significant effects on the growth of A. antiquum. H. zosterifolia co-occurring and not co-occurring with A. antiquum had similar foliar nutrient concentrations and δ15N values, suggesting that A. antiquum does not affect the nutrient status of H. zosterifolia. Reduced growth of H. zosterifolia with the removal of A. antiquum substrate, together with higher foliar δ13C for H. zosterifolia growing alone than those co-occurring with A. antiquum, suggest that A. antiquum enhances water availability to H. zosterifolia. This enhancement probably resulted from water storage in the substrate of A. antiquum, which could hold water up to 6.2 times its dry weight, and from reduced evapotranspiration due to shading of A. antiquum fronds. Greater water loss occurred in the frond-clipped group than the unclipped group between days 3-13 of the drought treatment. Our results imply that drought mitigation by substrate-forming epiphytes is important for maintaining epiphyte diversity in tropic and subtropic regions with episodic water limitations, especially in the context of anthropogenic climate change.
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