Many studies have investigated the potential impacts of climate change on the distribution of plant species, but few have attempted to constrain projections through plant dispersal limitations. Instead, most studies published so far have simplified dispersal as either unlimited or null. However, depending on the dispersal capacity of a species, landscape fragmentation, and the rate of climatic change, these assumptions can lead to serious over- or underestimation of the future distribution of plant species.
To quantify the discrepancies between simulations accounting for dispersal or not, we carried out projections of future distribution over the 21st century for 287 mountain plant species in a study area of the western Swiss Alps. For each species, simulations were run for four dispersal scenarios (unlimited dispersal, no dispersal, realistic dispersal, and realistic dispersal with long-distance dispersal events) and under four climate change scenarios.
Although simulations accounting for realistic dispersal limitations did significantly differ from those considering dispersal as unlimited or null in terms of projected future distribution, the unlimited dispersal simplification did nevertheless provide good approximations for species extinctions under more moderate climate change scenarios. Overall, simulations accounting for dispersal limitations produced, for our mountainous study area, results that were significantly closer to unlimited dispersal than to no dispersal. Finally, analysis of the temporal pattern of species extinctions over the entire 21st century revealed that important species extinctions for our study area might not occur before the 2080–2100 period, due to the possibility of a large number of species shifting their distribution to higher elevation.