• climate change;
  • hindcasting;
  • paleoclimate;
  • post-glacial re-colonization;
  • species distribution models


Ongoing rapid climate change is predicted to cause local extinction of plant species in mountain regions. However, some plant species could have persisted during Quaternary climate oscillations without shifting their range, despite the limited evidence from fossils. Here, we tested two candidate mechanisms of persistence by comparing the macrorefugia and microrefugia (MR) hypotheses. We used the rare and endemic Saxifraga florulenta as a model taxon and combined ensembles of species distribution models (SDMs) with a high-resolution paleoclimatic and topographic dataset to reconstruct its potential current and past distribution since the last glacial maximum. To test the macrorefugia hypothesis, we verified whether the species could have persisted in or shifted to geographic areas defined by its realized niche. We then identified potential MR based on climatic and topographic properties of the landscape and applied refined scenarios of MR dynamics and functions over time. Last, we quantified the number of known occurrences that could be explained by either the macrorefugia or MR model. A consensus of two or three SDM techniques predicted absence between 14–10, 3–4 and 1 ka bp, which did not support the macrorefugia model. In contrast, we showed that S. florulenta could have contracted into MR during periods of absence predicted by the SDMs and later re-colonized suitable areas according to the macrorefugia model. Assuming a limited and realistic seed dispersal distance for our species, we explained a large number of the current occurrences (61–96%). Additionally, we showed that MR could have facilitated range expansions or shifts of S. florulenta. Finally, we found that the most recent and the most stable MR were the ones closest to current occurrences. Hence, we propose a novel paradigm to explain plant persistence by highlighting the importance of supporting functions of MR when forecasting the fate of plant species under climate change.