Aims: The upper elevation limit of forest vegetation in mountain ranges (the alpine treeline ecotone) is expected to be highly sensitive to global change. Treeline shifts and/or ecotone afforestation could cause fragmentation and loss of alpine habitat, and are expected to trigger considerable alterations in alpine vegetation. We performed an analysis of vegetation structure at the treeline ecotone to evaluate whether distribution of the tree population determines the spatial pattern of vegetation (species composition and diversity) across the transition from subalpine forest to alpine vegetation.
Location: Iberian eastern range of the Pyrenees.
Methods: We studied 12 alpine Pinus uncinata treeline ecotones. Rectangular plots ranging from 940 to 1900 m2 were placed along the forest-alpine vegetation transition, from closed forest to the treeless alpine area. To determine community structure and species distribution in the treeline ecotone, species variation along the forest-alpine vegetation transition was sampled using relevés of 0.5 m2 set every 2 m along the length of each plot. Fuzzy C-means clustering was performed to assess the transitional status of the relevés in terms of species composition. The relation of P. uncinata canopy cover to spatial pattern of vegetation was evaluated using continuous wavelet transform analysis.
Results: Vegetation analyses revealed a large degree of uniformity of the subalpine forest between all treeline ecotone areas studied. In contrast, the vegetation mosaic found upslope displayed great variation between sites and was characterized by abrupt changes in plant community across the treeline ecotone. Plant richness and diversity significantly increased across the ecotone, but tree cover and diversity boundaries were not spatially coincident.
Conclusions: Our results revealed that no intermediate communities, in terms of species composition, are present in the treeline ecotone. Ecotone vegetation reflected both bedrock type and fine-scale heterogeneity at ground level, thereby reinforcing the importance of microenvironmental conditions for alpine community composition. Tree cover did not appear to be the principal driver of alpine community changes across the treeline ecotone. Microenvironmental heterogeneity, together with effects of past climatic and land-use changes on ecotone vegetation, may weaken the expected correlation between species distribution and vegetation structure.