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Patch configuration affects alpine plant distribution


  • Stefan Dullinger,

  • Thomas Mang,

  • Thomas Dirnböck,

  • Siegrun Ertl,

  • Andreas Gattringer,

  • Georg Grabherr,

  • Michael Leitner,

  • Karl Hülber

S. Dullinger (, T. Mang, S. Ertl, G. Grabherr and K. Hülber, Dept of Conservation Biology, Vegetation and Landscape Ecology, Faculty Centre of Biodiversity, Univ. of Vienna, Rennweg 14, AT-1030 Vienna, Austria. (Present address of S D, T M and K H: Vienna Inst. for Nature Conservation and Analyses, Giessergasse 6/7, AT-1090 Vienna, Austria.) – T. Dirnböck, Dept for Ecosystem Research and Monitoring, Austrian Environment Agency, Spittelauer Lände 5, AT-1090 Vienna, Austria. – A. Gattringer, Vienna Inst. for Nature Conservation and Analyses, Giessergasse 6/7, AT-1090 Vienna, Austria. – M. Leitner, Fakultät für Physik, Univ. Wien, Strudlhofgasse 4, AT-1090 Vienna, Austria.


The relative importance of niche requirements and dispersal limitation in controlling the landscape-scale distribution of plants is still contentious. Local occurrence and abundance of alpine plants are commonly thought to be driven by abiotic site conditions due to pronounced environmental gradients over short distances. However, explicit tests of the additional role of dispersal-related processes for alpine plant distribution patterns are lacking. Here, we combine niche-based species distribution models with variables describing patch size and connectivity to evaluate if, besides abiotic limitations, spatial habitat configuration affects the occurrence and abundance of six plant species inhabiting patchy snowbed mosaics of the northeastern Calcareous Alps in Austria. Moreover, we assess if eventual effects of spatial patch configuration are more clearly detectable when calculating connectivity based on parameterized mechanistic dispersal kernels for both wind and animal vectors instead of using nearest neighbour metrics. We show that patch size and connectivity are significantly correlated to the occurrence of all and to the abundance of four out of six study species, although the relative importance of these variables, as compared to niche constraints, varies among species. In addition, connectivity measures derived from parameterized dispersal kernels were more closely related to occupancy, and in particular to abundance patterns than a simple nearest neighbour metric. The fitted kernels also suggest that dispersal by alpine chamois plays an important role for inter-patch seed exchange. We conclude that, despite evident abiotic limitations, recurrent local extinctions and delayed re-colonizations indeed play a role for the distribution of our study species, and that alpine plants may hence be less in equilibrium with their abiotic environment than commonly thought. Moreover, the relatively high long-distance dispersal probabilities of animal kernels indicate that the ability of alpine plants to adapt their ranges to a rapidly warming climate may, among other factors, depend on the availability of dispersal services by large mammals.