Evolution of crassulacean acid metabolism (cam) as an escape from ecological niche conservatism in Malagasy Bulbophyllum (Orchidaceae).
Despite growing evidence that niche shifts are more common in flowering plants than previously thought, little is known of whether such shifts are promoted by changes in photosynthetic pathways. Here we combine the most complete phylogeny for epiphytic Malagasy Bulbophyllum orchids (c. 210 spp.) with climatic niche and carbon isotope ratios to infer the group's spatial-temporal history, and the role of strongly expressed crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) in facilitating niche shifts and diversification. We find that most extant species still retain niche (Central Highland) and photosynthesis (C3) states as present in the single mid-Miocene (c. 12.70 million yr ago (Ma)) ancestor colonizing Madagascar. However, we also infer a major transition to CAM, linked to a late Miocene (c. 7.36 Ma) invasion of species from the sub-humid highland first into the island's humid eastern coastal, and then into the seasonally dry 'Northwest Sambirano' rainforests, yet without significant effect on diversification rates. These findings indicate that CAM in tropical epiphytes may be selectively advantageous even in high rainfall habitats, rather than presenting a mere adaptation to dry environments or epiphytism per se. Overall, our study qualifies CAM as an evolutionary 'gateway' trait that considerably widened the spatial-ecological amplitude of Madagascar's most species-rich orchid genus.