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Southern Hemisphere temperate tree lines are not climatically depressed




Southern temperate tree lines are found at low elevations compared with their Northern Hemisphere counterparts. They are also regarded as forming at warm temperatures, which has been attributed to taxon-specific limitations. Using New Zealand tree lines as an example, we assess whether these tree lines are anomalously warm compared with the global mean.


New Zealand.


Soil and air temperatures were measured over 2 years at six New Zealand tree line sites, and compared with other local and global growing season temperature data. In New Zealand and other oceanic regions, the long, variable seasonal transitions make calculations of mean growing season temperatures highly sensitive to how the growing season is defined. We used both the conventional (wide) definition (from when mean weekly root-zone temperature exceeds 3.2 °C in spring, to when it first falls below 3.2 °C in autumn) and a narrow definition (the period during which temperatures are continuously above 3.2 °C). Application of these criteria leads to similar mean growing season temperatures in continental regions, but different ones in oceanic regions. We tested whether growing season temperatures differ between northern and southern temperate tree lines.


New Zealand tree lines had a mean root-zone temperature during the wide growing season of 7.0 °C ± 0.4 SD, not significantly different from those at northern temperate tree lines. The mean temperature of the narrow growing season was 7.8 °C, warmer than tree lines elsewhere, but still within the range reported for temperate tree lines (7–8 °C).

Main conclusions

Whilst they are found at lower elevations, New Zealand tree lines form at temperatures similar to those at Northern Hemisphere temperate tree lines. Together with similar recent evidence from Chile, these results refute the previously postulated taxon-specific limitation hypothesis, and suggest these southern temperate tree lines are not climatically depressed, but are governed by the same thermal threshold as other tree lines worldwide.