, Volume 195, Issue 2, pp 179-196
Date: 24 Jun 2007

Changes in plant species richness over the last century in the eastern Swiss Alps: elevational gradient, bedrock effects and migration rates

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Areas of 2,800–3,000 m a.s.l. represent the alpine-nival ecotone in the Alps. This transition zone connecting the closed swards of the alpine belt and the scattered vegetation of the nival belt may show particularly strong climate warming driven fluctuations in plant species richness compared to the nival belt. To test this hypothesis, 12 summits within this range were investigated in the canton of Grisons, Switzerland in 2004. Complete lists of vascular plant species consisting of 5–70 species were collected on each summit and the elevation of the uppermost occurrence of each species was recorded. These data were compared to historical records over 120 years in age. Within this time, vascular plant species richness increased by 11% per decade on summits in the alpine-nival ecotone. Despite this considerable change, a comparison with nival summits did not support the hypothesis that species richness increase at the alpine-nival ecotone is higher than in the nival belt. A general trend of upward migration in the range of several metres per decade could be observed. Anemochorous species were more often found to be migrating than zoochorous or autochorous species and migration was higher on calcareous than on siliceous bedrock. A comparison between the summits with the adjacent slopes in our study revealed that changes in species number could be used as an indicator for climate-induced changes—if at all—only for the narrow summit areas.