Question: How does an improved understanding of species interactions, combined with an additional ecological variable (wind speed), alter the projected vegetation response to variation in altitudinal temperature?
Location: Cairngorm Mountains, Scotland.
Methods: Montane heathland vegetation was sampled from 144 plots (432 quadrats) comprising eight altitudinal transects. Ordination by partial DCA and path analysis was used to confirm: (1) the effect of wind speed and altitude (≈ temperature) on vegetation structure, i.e. canopy height and cover of bare ground, and (2) the control of arctic/alpine macrolichen occurrence by vegetation structure. Nested regression analysis was used to project the response of vegetation structure and lichen occurrence to temperature change scenarios with and without a step-wise change in future wind speed.
Results: Warming trends shifted vegetation zones upwards, with a subsequent loss of suitable habitat for arctic/alpine lichens. However, incorporating wind speed as an additional explanatory variable had an important modifying effect on the vegetation response to temperature: decreasing wind speed exaggerates the effects of increased temperature and vice versa. Our models suggest that for the wind-driven heath examined, a 20% increase in mean wind speed may negate the effect of increased temperature on vegetation structure, resulting in no net change in lichen occurrence.
Conclusions: We caution that an improved understanding of species interactions in vegetation response models may force the consideration of locally variable environmental parameters (e.g. wind speed), bringing into question the predicted vegetation response based on standard projections of temperature change along altitudinal gradients.