Species of the large family Orchidaceae display a spectacular array of adaptations and rapid speciations that are linked to several innovative features, including specialized pollination syndromes, colonization of epiphytic habitats, and the presence of Crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), a water-conserving photosynthetic pathway. To better understand the role of CAM and epiphytism in the evolutionary expansion of tropical orchids, we sampled leaf carbon isotopic composition of 1,103 species native to Panama and Costa Rica, performed character state reconstruction and phylogenetic trait analysis of CAM and epiphytism, and related strong CAM, present in 10% of species surveyed, to climatic variables and the evolution of epiphytism in tropical regions. Altitude was the most important predictor of photosynthetic pathway when all environmental variables were taken into account, with CAM being most prevalent at low altitudes. By creating integrated orchid trees to reconstruct ancestral character states, we found that C3 photosynthesis is the ancestral state and that CAM has evolved at least 10 independent times with several reversals. A large CAM radiation event within the Epidendroideae, the most species-rich epiphytic clade of any known plant group, is linked to a Tertiary species radiation that originated 65 million years ago. Our study shows that parallel evolution of CAM is present among subfamilies of orchids, and correlated divergence between photosynthetic pathways and epiphytism can be explained by the prevalence of CAM in low-elevation epiphytes and rapid speciation of high-elevation epiphytes in the Neotropics, contributing to the astounding diversity in the Orchidaceae.
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