Questions: We addressed two poorly understood aspects of plant response to climate change: the impact of extreme climatic events and the mediating role of biotic interactions, through a study of heatwave effects on tree seedling survival rates and ability of the tree canopy to alter seedling responses.
Location: Mountain belt of the northern French Alps (Maurienne Valley).
Methods: The survival rates of two seedling cohorts from four tree species (Abies alba, Acer pseudoplatanus, Fraxinus excelsior and Picea abies) were measured during both the 2003 European heatwave and an average summer (2004) in deciduous broadleaf mountain forests. Seedlings were transplanted into two soil moisture conditions, and in experimental gaps or under the tree canopy.
Results: The heatwave strongly decreased tree seedling survival rates, while there was an important species-specific mediating role of biotic interactions. In the wettest conditions, the tree canopy strongly increased survival of Abies, buffering the negative impact of the heatwave. In contrast, in the driest conditions, the tree canopy decreased survival of Picea and Acer, amplifying the negative impact of the heatwave. We found evidence of increasing soil water stress in the understorey of the driest community, but further studies including vapour pressure deficit measurements are needed to elucidate the driving mechanism of facilitation.
Conclusions: The high species specificity of the mediating role of biotic interactions and its variation along stress gradients leads to questions on our ability to predict large-scale responses of species to climate changes.