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Keywords:

  • alpine treeline;
  • climate change;
  • dispersal;
  • European Alps;
  • invisibility;
  • plant spread model

Summary

  • 1
    Global warming will probably shift treelines upslope in alpine areas and towards the pole in arctic environments. However, responses of regional treelines to climatic trends over the last century do not show any clear trends. We hypothesize that these equivocal responses may partly be caused by limitation of dispersal and/or recruitment that is species-specific to particular trees with potentially expanding ranges.
  • 2
    To test this hypothesis, we established and parameterized a temporally and spatially explicit model of plant spread and analysed its sensitivity to: (a) variation in predicted climatic trends; (b) the spatial distribution of recruits around a seed source; and (c) variation in the resistance of resident non-woody vegetation to invasion. We used data from a high mountain landscape of the Northern Calcareous Alps in Austria where the treeline is dominated by Pinus mugo Turra, a shrubby pine.
  • 3
    Low growth rates and long generation times, together with considerable dispersal and recruitment limitation, resulted in an overall slow range expansion under various climate-warming scenarios.
  • 4
    Running the model for 1000 years predicted that the area covered by pines will increase from 10% to between 24% and 59% of the study landscape.
  • 5
    The shape of the dispersal curve and spatial patterns of competitively controlled recruitment suppression affect range size dynamics at least as severely as does variation in assumed future mean annual temperature (between 0 °C and 2 °C above the current mean). Moreover, invasibility and shape of the dispersal curve interact with each other due to the spatial patterns of vegetation cover in the region.
  • 6
    Ambiguous transient responses of individual treeline systems may thus originate not only from variation in regional climatic trends but also from differences in species’ dispersal and recruitment behaviour and in the intensity and pattern of resistance of resident alpine vegetation to invasion.