Aims Alpine tree line ecotones are harsh environments where low temperatures constrain tree regeneration and growth. However, the expected upward shift of tree line ecotones in response to climate warming has not been ubiquitous. The lack of coupling between tree line dynamics and climate warming might be explained by factors other than climate variation that determine seedling recruitment in these ecotones. We want to assess how the availability of suitable habitat for establishment and the effects of facilitation on seedling survival and growth affect tree recruitment within tree line ecotones and modulate their responses to climate.
Location We evaluate the relevance of these factors for Pinus uncinata tree line ecotones in the Catalan Pyrenees (north-east Spain) and Andorra.
Methods We analysed the microhabitat of naturally established seedlings in rectangular plots at the tree line ecotone, assessing the habitat type and the proximity to potentially protective elements that may improve microsite conditions. We tested whether krummholz individuals influence regeneration at the tree line by performing a transplantation field experiment to evaluate the extent of facilitation on seedling survival and growth in height. A total of 820 seedlings were transplanted at different distances and orientations (resulting in 12 positions) from krummholz mats and monitored over 2 years.
Results Safe sites for P. uncinata recruits consisted of sparse vegetation covering bare soil, gravel or litter, and close to protective elements that may ameliorate microsite conditions. The field experiment showed that directional positive interactions enhance seedling survival and growth, altering the spatial patterns of recruit survivorship, especially during harsh winter conditions (shallow and irregular snowpack).
Main conclusions Our results suggest that scarce availability of safe sites and uneven facilitation by krummholz control seedling recruitment patterns within alpine tree line ecotones. Such constraints may distort or counter the response of tree line ecotones to climate warming at local and regional scales.