Freezing temperatures as a limit to forest recruitment above tropical Andean treelines

Authors

  • Evan M. Rehm,

    Corresponding author
    1. International Center for Tropical Botany, Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, Miami, Florida 33199 USA
    2. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida 33156 USA
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  • Kenneth J. Feeley

    1. International Center for Tropical Botany, Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, Miami, Florida 33199 USA
    2. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida 33156 USA
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  • Corresponding Editor: F. C. Meinzer.

Abstract

The elevation of altitudinal treelines is generally believed to occur where low mean temperatures during the growing season limit growth and prevent trees from establishing at higher elevations. Accordingly, treelines should move upslope with increasing global temperatures. Contrary to this prediction, tropical treelines have remained stable over the past several decades despite increasing mean temperatures. The observed stability of tropical treelines, coupled with the drastically different temperature profiles between temperate and tropical treelines, suggests that using mean measures of temperature to predict tropical treeline movements during climate change may be overly simplistic. We hypothesize that frost events at tropical treelines may slow climate driven treeline movement by preventing tree recruitment beyond the established forest canopy. To assess this hypothesis, we measured freezing resistance of four canopy-forming treeline species (Weinmannia fagaroides, Polylepis pauta, Clethra cuneata, and Gynoxys nitida) at two life stages (juvenile and adult) and during two seasons (warm-wet and cold-dry). Freezing resistances were then compared to microclimatic data to determine if freezing events in the grassland matrix above treeline are too harsh for these forest species. Freezing resistance varied among species and life stages from −5.7°C for juveniles of P. pauta to −11.1°C for juveniles of W. fagaroides. Over a four-year period, the lowest temperatures recorded at 10 cm above ground level in the grasslands above treeline and at treeline itself were −8.9°C and −6.8°C, respectively. Juveniles maintained freezing resistances similar to adults during the coldest parts of the year and ontogenetic differences in freezing resistance were only present during the warm season when temperatures did not represent a significant threat to active plant tissue. These findings support the hypothesis that rare extreme freezing events at and above tropical treelines can prevent recruitment outside of closed canopy forest for some tree species and may significantly slow treeline advancement despite warming mean temperatures. Predictions of treeline shifts under climate change should be reevaluated to include species-specific climatic tolerances and measures of climatic variability.

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