High mountain ecosystems are defined by low temperatures and are therefore considered to react sensitively to climate warming. Responding to observed changes in plant species richness on high peaks of the European Alps, an extensive setup of 1 m × 1 m permanent plots was established at the alpine-nival ecotone (between 2900 and 3450 m) on Mount Schrankogel, a GLORIA master site in the central Tyrolean Alps, Austria, in 1994. Recording was repeated in a representative selection of 362 quadrats in 2004. Ten years after the first recording, we observed an average change in vascular plant species richness from 11.4 to 12.7 species per plot, an increase of 11.8% (or of at least 10.6% at a 95% confidence level). The increase in species richness involved 23 species (about 43% of all taxa found at the ecotone), comprising both alpine and nival species and was pronouncedly higher in plots with subnival/nival vegetation than in plots with alpine grassland vegetation. Only three species showed a decrease in plot occupancy: one was an annual species, one was rare, and one a common nival plant that decreased in one part of the area but increased in the uppermost part. Species cover changed in relation to altitudinal preferences of species, showing significant declines of all subnival to nival plants, whereas alpine pioneer species increased in cover. Recent climate warming in the Alps, which has been twice as high as the global average, is considered to be the primary driver of the observed differential changes in species cover. Our results indicate an ongoing range contraction of subnival to nival species at their rear (i.e. lower) edge and a concurrent expansion of alpine pioneer species at their leading edge. Although this was expected from predictive distribution models and different temperature-related habitat preferences of alpine and nival species, we provide first evidence on – most likely – warming-induced species declines in the high European Alps. The projected acceleration of climate warming raises concerns that this phenomenon could become the major threat to biodiversity in high mountains.
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