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Environmental dependence of population dynamics and height growth of a subalpine conifer across its vertical distribution: an approach using high-resolution aerial photographs


Correspondence: Takehiro Sasaki, tel. + 81 (0)22 795 5790, fax + 81 (0)22 795 5790, e-mail:;


Many studies have reported shifts in the altitudinal ranges of plant species in response to recent global warming. However, most studies of tree species have been conducted on a small scale and have focused on tree line ecotones by examining tree rings and age structure on account of the long life spans of the trees. To examine the impact of climate change on forest dynamics at a regional scale, we investigated differences in the population density and canopy height of a Japanese subalpine coniferous species, Abies mariesii, between 1967 and 2003 by analysis of high-resolution aerial photographs of the Hakkoda Mountains, Honshu, Japan. In 712 plots within the photographs we analyzed which environmental variables (including elevation, aspect, wetness, and distance from moorlands) account for these changes. The population density of A. mariesii decreased below 1000 m a.s.l. and increased above 1300 m a.s.l. It also increased around moorlands, which may provide refugia at low elevations. The rate of increase in canopy height was lowest on the southeastern slopes and on the periphery of the moorlands. The distinct changes in the population density of A. mariesii at its distribution limits probably reflect the responses of the population to climatic changes during three decades. Areas surrounding the moorlands may offer refugia in spite of the poor growing conditions there.