Aim We compared vegetation patterns at high elevation on a tropical mountain with edaphic properties and position along climate gradients to examine this landscape’s potential sensitivity to climate change.
Location Our study covers the cloud forest, the ecotone at the cloud forest’s upper limit, and the alpine grassland, on the north-east corner of windward Haleakalā, Hawai‘i. The study area brackets the mean trade wind inversion (TWI), encompasses a perpendicular, east–west precipitation gradient and includes multiple edaphic contexts.
Methods We collected vegetation structure and composition data in 134 plots from 1900 to 2400 m elevation, stratified east to west. We used classification trees to compare species assemblage groups with spatial (elevation, easting, aspect) and edaphic (substrate age, texture, degree slope) variables derived from a 10-m digital elevation model and a digital geological map.
Results The forest line was physiognomically sharp, and a Shipley–Keddy test showed that species distributional limits were aggregated there. Forest line elevation was not consistent, but dropped nearly 200 m from east to west. Indicator taxa for positions above or below the forest line varied from east to west. Hierarchical clustering identified species assemblage groups with significantly different composition that were distributed across the TWI and/or along east–west climate gradients. Classification trees showed that edaphic properties were not well associated with species assemblage groups, but position along two perpendicular climate gradients was. Compositional turnover was detected along both elevational and east–west gradients. Turnover of the cloud forest’s epiphytic community was particularly pronounced across east–west gradients. Lichen abundance was significantly higher at the drier end of the east–west moisture gradient, and bryophyte abundance was higher at the wetter end.
Main conclusions Modern spatial patterns suggest that this landscape will respond to changes in moisture balance through changes in species assemblage and structure, especially at the ecotone. Furthermore, ecotone response to climate change may vary from east to west because of differences in species-specific constraints or climatic context.