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Experimental warming alters spring phenology of certain plant functional groups in an early successional forest community


Correspondence: Christine Rollinson, tel. + 440 935 4770, fax + 814 865 3725, e-mail:


Experimental study of the effects of projected climate change on plant phenology allows us to isolate effects of warming on life-history events such as leaf out. We simulated a 2 °C temperature increase and 20% precipitation increase in a recently harvested temperate deciduous forest community in central Pennsylvania, USA, and observed the leaf out phenology of all species in 2009 and 2010. Over 130 plant species were monitored weekly in study plots, but due to high variability in species composition among plots, species were grouped into five functional groups: short forbs, tall forbs, shrubs, small trees, and large trees. Tall forbs and large trees, which usually emerge in the late spring, advanced leaf out 14–18 days in response to warming. Short forbs, shrubs, and small trees emerge early in spring and did not alter their phenology in response to warming or increased precipitation treatments. Earlier leaf out of tall forbs and large trees coincided with almost 3 weeks of increased community-level leaf area index, indicating greater competition and a condensed spring green-up period. While phenology of large trees and tall forbs appears to be strongly influenced by temperature-based growth cues, our results suggest that photoperiod and chilling cues more strongly influence the leaf out of other functional groups. Reduced freeze events and warmer temperatures from predicted climate change will interact with nontemperature growth cues to have cascading consequences throughout the ecosystem.