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South-west Sri Lanka: a floristic refugium in South Asia


Nimal Gunatilleke ,

University of Peradeniya, LK
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Savitri Gunatilleke,

University of Peradeniya, LK
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Peter Shaw Ashton

Harvard University, USA, and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, GB
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In South Asia, south-west Sri Lanka alone represents the sole surviving perhumid region where Mixed Dipterocarp Forests (MDF) harbour a number of relict signature taxa providing evidence of ancient plant migration routes from Gondwana to perhumid Far Eastern Sunda land, at least partially via southern Laurasia. Palynological and phylogenetic evidence now confirm that the Malesian rain forest flora overwhelmingly immigrated from tropical Africa/Madagascar and South Asia along an ever-wet equatorial corridor sometime before the collision of the Indian Plate with the Southern Laurasian coast in middle Eocene (c. 45 Ma). This ever-wet climatic and geological history has led to the evolution of a characteristic species composition and dynamics within SW Sri Lanka’s rain forest communities, which exhibit remarkable patterns of species distribution and habitat specialization, and which parallel those of Far Eastern sister taxa.


We here examine the patterns of floristic variation in each of three MDF sites using classification and ordination methods to analyse tree data collected in 62 random plots, each 0.25ha, along an altitudinal gradient. In addition, a 25 ha forest dynamics plot (FDP) was established in the Sinharaja World Heritage Site, within the CTFS-ForestGEO network that addresses issues related to community ecology and phylogenetics incorporating large-scale biogeographic patterns of major clades of both plants and animals.


In the above studies, ecologically distinct floristic assemblages were revealed, i) among the three MDF sites as well as, ii) among the ridge-, slope-, and valley habitats within each forest site. In the FDP too, >80% of the 125 species, with individuals >1 cm dbh and >100 individuals per species, are significantly more associated with one or more of eight topographic habitat categories than in others. These results suggest that ecological ranges and dispersion of tree species in SW Sri Lanka is primarily mediated by soil water and nutrient levels in topographically different catenal habitats mirroring those in the Far East.

Many of these species are threatened relict endemics, and their distribution patterns have important conservation implications. Their spatial distributional features provide useful criteria in site-species matching or environmental filtering in forest restoration efforts.
How to Cite: Gunatilleke, N., Gunatilleke, S., & Ashton, P. S. (2017). South-west Sri Lanka: a floristic refugium in South Asia. Ceylon Journal of Science, 46(5), 65–78. DOI:
Published on 23 Nov 2017.
Peer Reviewed


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