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Nested communities of alpine plants on isolated mountains: relative importance of colonization and extinction


*Correspondence and present address: Danish Forest and Landscape. Research Institute, Hørsholm Kongevej 11, DK-2970 Hørsholm, Denmark. E-mail:


Aim  This paper seeks to investigate whether alpine floras on isolated mountains in boreal forest show nestedness, and, if that is the case, to determine whether selective extinction or colonization is the likely cause of the observed patterns.

Location  Isolated mountains in the boreal coniferous forests of northern Sweden (province of Norrbotten, c. 66°N; 18°E). The timberline in the region probably has been 300–400 m above the present some thousands of years before present, potentially covering these mountains.

Methods  A data matrix of twenty-seven alpine plant species on twenty-seven isolated mountains was subjected to nested subsets analysis. Extinction probability was assumed to increase with decreasing area, and colonization probability was assumed to decrease with increasing isolation. By sorting the data matrix by these factors and sequentially computing the degree of nestedness, we were able to determine whether the alpine floras were structured mainly by selective extinction or mainly by differential colonization.

Results  When ordered by decreasing area the data matrix was significantly more nested than random, but that was not the case when ordered by decreasing isolation. Ordering by maximum altitude also produced significant nestedness.

Main conclusions  Contrary to the conventional view that isolated mountains were completely covered with boreal forest some thousands of years ago, the nestedness patterns of alpine plants indicate that many of them survived the forest period on the isolated mountains, probably on cliffs and slopes too steep for the formation of closed forest.