Questions: Is light availability the main factor driving forest dynamics in Pyrenean sub-alpine forests? Do pines and firs differ in growth, mortality and morphological response to low light availability? Can differences in shade tolerance affect predictions of future biome changes in Pyrenean sub-alpine forests in the absence of thermal limitation?
Location: Montane–sub-alpine ecotones of the Eastern Pyrenees (NE Spain).
Methods: We evaluated morphological plasticity, survival and growth response of saplings of Scots pine, mountain pine and silver fir to light availability in a mixed forest ecotone. For each species, we selected 100 living and 50 dead saplings and measured size, crown morphology and light availability. A wood disk at root collar was then removed for every sapling, and models relating growth and mortality to light were obtained.
Results: Fir had the lowest mortality rate (<0.1) for any given light condition. Pines had comparable responses to light availability, although in deep shade Scots pine risked higher mortality (0.35) than mountain pine (0.19). Pines and fir developed opposing strategies to light deprivation: fir employed a conservative strategy based on sacrificing height growth, whereas pines enhanced height growth to escape from shade, but at the expense of higher mortality risk. Scots pine showed higher plasticity than mountain pine for all architectural and morphological traits analysed, having higher adaptive capacity to a changing environment.
Conclusions: Our results support the prediction of future biome changes in Pyrenean sub-alpine forests as silver fir and Scots pine may find appropriate conditions for colonizing mountain pine-dominated stands due to land-use change-related forest densification and climate warming-related temperature increases, respectively.