, Volume 202, Issue 1, pp 79-89
Date: 06 Dec 2008

Short-term signals of climate change along an altitudinal gradient in the South Alps

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Short-term changes in plant species number, frequency and composition were studied along an altitudinal gradient crossing four summits from the treeline ecotone to the subnival zone in the South Alps (Dolomites, Italy). Large-scale (summit areas) and small-scale patterns (16 plots of 1 m²/summit) were monitored. After 5 years, a re-visitation of the summit areas revealed a considerable increase of species richness at the upper alpine and subnival zone (10% and 9%, respectively) and relatively modest increases at the lower alpine zone and the treeline ecotone (3% and 1%, respectively). At the small scale, the results were partly different, with species richness decreasing at the lower summits and increasing at the higher summits. The changes can most likely be attributed to climate warming effects and to competitive interactions. The main newcomers at the lower three summits were species from the treeline and the lower altitudinal zones. Only at the highest summit, the newcomers came from the alpine species pool. At the treeline ecotone, the abundance of Pinus cembra, of dwarf shrubs and clonal graminoid species increased. Here, displacements of alpine species may be predicted for the near future. At the higher summits, expansions of the established alpine species and further invasions of species from lower altitudes are forecasted.