|Résumé :||I. An original methodological discussion is proposed on the problem of the typology of tropical rain forest’s plant communities, based on the study of forest types across gradients of continentality and elevation, within Atlantic central Africa. These investigations were based on the statement that the main problems in forest typology are related to the non-zonal or zonal character of the different vegetation types and to non considering the relations and differences between forest strata.
II. Field data consisted in phytosociological homogeneous sample plots localized within different recognized phytogeographical entities, in a region of tropical Africa where these entities are known to be well conserved. A total of 37 such plots were inventoried in the region extending from the littoral forests of Ndoté, Equatorial Guinea, which are wet evergreen forests, to the continental forests of the Dja, Cameroon, known as evergreen seasonal forests. The studied region also included the oriental Atlantic forests of Equatorial Guinea, known as moist evergreen forests or caesalp forests. In various parts of this continentality gradient, some plots were localized within climax non-zonal formations, namely the submontane rain forests. The emphasis was put on the vegetation of the Monte Alén National Park.
The sampling methodology was willing to be as "complete ", including all strata, "quantitative ", enumerating all individuals, and "representative ", within each stratum, as possible. These multi-layers plots were realised using nested sub-plots, with a sampling size of 100 individuals for every ligneous stratum recognized (dominant trees, dominated trees and shrubs) and a sampling size of 200m² for the herbaceous and suffrutex stratum.
Forest types were defined independently for each stratum and the differences were analysed. A method was proposed for the simultaneous analysis of all floristic data, converting and standardizing the values from ligneous strata, on the one hand, and from understorey strata, on the other hand.
III. Ten forest types were described using IndVal and discussed in the general context of the guineo-congolian region, from a syntaxonomic view point (agglomerative classification) and from a phytogeographical view point (divisive classification). Homologies between these two approaches are described. The proposed phytogeographical system is based on an "open " conception of hierarchical classifications, combining advantages of agglomerative and divisive classifications. In concrete terms, the non-zonal criteria, for example the submontane variants, are categorised separately and in analogy with the zonal criteria, related to the usual phytochoria.
Analysis of ecological relationships for the 10 communities showed that the main variables related to the floristic variability in our mainland rain forests are elevation, rainfall, hygrometry (estimated using bryophytes cover levels) and distance to the ocean. The two extremes on the vertical microclimatic gradient, dominant trees stratum and herbaceous stratum, give similar typologies, however canonical analysis showed that for the herbaceous layer, non-zonal variables (hygrometry and elevation) were gaining more importance when the influence of the two zonal variables was attenuated. In every case, spatial autocorrelation was less important than the environment in explaining floristic variability but its role increased in the spatial arrangement of understorey species, whose dispersal capacity is generally lower than canopy trees. The phytosociological, phytogeographical and ecological description of forest types is accompanied by a physiognomical description using biological types spectrum, as well as architectural models, leaf sizes, etc.
With regard to diversity, we have demonstrated that species richness was higher from upper to lower strata because of the accumulation in lower strata of species from various strata. On the other hand, the proper stratum diversity, i.e. the structural set, decreased from dominant trees to shrubs. The proper diversity of the herb layer showed relatively high figures mainly due to the higher individual density in relation to the existence of microstrata. Within the 37 sample plots, 1,050 taxa have been identified to species or morpho-species levels, for a total of 25,750 individuals. These taxa represent 442 genus among 104 families. The richest forest type is found on the foothills of the Niefang range, on the windward side. This forest type is also characterised by a high number of oligotypic genus and by species belonging to functional types indicators of glacial refuges. These functional types are defined on the basis of the dispersal capacity and on kind of stand needed for effective germination. We formulated the hypothesis that this kind of "foothills refuge ", characterised by his zonal nature, could have been one of the rare refuges for species from mainland rain forests, while montane and fluvial refuges would mainly have preserved species from non-zonal forest types: (sub)montane and riverine.
Based on indicator species of submontane forests, a potential distribution map of this forest type has been realised at the Atlantic central African scale. More than 400 submontane forest localities have been mapped. These forests begin at 400m of altitude near the ocean, and progressively at higher altitude for increasing distance to the ocean. Many lowland localities also comprised submontane species, which could indicate the existence of ecological transgressions. These transgressions would allow migratory tracks for submontane species between isolated mountain ranges, not only during glacial periods, through heights at the northern and southern borders of the congo basin, but also contemporarily through the lowland riverine forest network, in the centre of this basin. Finally, a special attention has been attributed to littoral forests and to some cases of choroecological transgressions, coupled to the ecological equalization phenomenon.