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Increased early growth rates decrease longevities of conifers in subalpine forests


  • Christof Bigler,

  • Thomas T. Veblen

C. Bigler (, Inst. of Terrestrial Ecosystems, Dept of Environmental Sciences, ETH Zurich, CH–8092 Zurich, Switzerland. CH and T. T. Veblen, Dept of Geography, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80903, USA.


For trees, fast growth rates and large size seem to be a fitness benefit because of increased competitiveness, attainment of reproductive size earlier, reduction of generation times, and increased short-term survival chances. However, fast growth rates and large size entail reduced investment in defenses, lower wood density and mechanical strength, increased hydraulic resistance as well as problems with down-regulation of growth during periods of stress, all of which may decrease tree longevity. In this study, we investigated the relationship between longevity and growth rates of trees and quantified effects of spatial environmental variation (elevation, slope steepness, aspect, soil depth) on tree longevity. Radial growth rates and longevities were determined from tree-ring samples of 161 dead trees from three conifer species in subalpine forests of the Colorado Rocky Mountains (Abies lasiocarpa, Picea engelmannii) and the Swiss Alps (Picea abies). For all three species, we found an apparent tradeoff between growth rate to the age of 50 years and longevity (i.e. fast early growth is associated with decreased longevity). This association was particularly pronounced for larger P. engelmannii and P. abies, which attained canopy size, however, there were also significant effects for smaller P. engelmannii and P. abies. For the more shade-tolerant A. lasiocarpa, tree size did not have any effect. Among the abiotic variables tested only northerly aspect significantly favored longevity of A. lasiocarpa and P. engelmannii. Trees growing on south-facing aspects probably experience greater water deficits leading to premature tree death, and/or shorter life spans may reflect shorter fire intervals on these more xeric aspects. Empirical evidence from other studies has shown that global warming affects growth rates of trees over large spatial and temporal scales. For moist-cool subalpine forests, we hypothesize that the higher growth rates associated with global warming may in turn result in reduced tree longevity and more rapid turnover rates.

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