, Volume 162, Issue 2, pp 157-168

Conifer seedling distribution and survival in an alpine-treeline ecotone

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Abstract

The importance of seedling establishment to the position ofalpine-treeline is recognized, yet little is known about factorsaffecting the survival of seedlings of treeline conifers during their initialyears of growth and establishment. This establishment period may have thegreatest mortality of all life stages until death of mature trees by disease orfire. Spatial and temporal patterns in the distribution and survival ofseedlings of Picea engelmannii and Abieslasiocarpa were evaluated over four years in analpine-treeline ecotone of the Snowy Range, Wyoming, USA. Seedlings andsaplings of both species occurred most frequently near islands of adult trees.For P. englemannii, this appeared partly due to decreasedsurvivorship of young seedlings (< 5 cm height) with greaterdistance away from tree islands. Survival of emergents of P.engelmannii was 28% greater on the north compared to southsides of tree islands, 48% lower on south-facing slopes comparedto other aspects, and 70% greater with overhead cover such as treebranches. Survival of emergents was greater in microsites with grass cover(90% survival) compared to without ground cover (44% survival),but lowest in microsites surrounded, but not covered, by grass (19%).From 1994–1999, natural seedling emergence and survival washighest in 1995 (80% survival of 221 P.engelmannii,and 100% of seven A. lasiocarpa, in a sample areaof432 m2), when the smallest mean difference in dailymaximum and minimum temperatures occurred, and lowest in 1994 (30% ofseven P. engelmannii), when above-averagetemperatures were accompanied by low rainfall and clear skies. The growthseasons of 1994 and 1995 had among the lowest and highest precipitation of theprevious 30-year period, respectively. In an artificial seedingexperiment, less than 20% of seedlings of both species survived theirfirst complete year of growth. In the autumn of the second year, almost25% additional mortality was observed in the remaining experimentalseedlings when they were exposed to clear, cold skies without the normalprotection of snowcover. Both spatial and temporal patterns of seedlingsurvivalsuggest that exposure to high sunlight may exacerbate low-temperatureandwater stress in young conifer seedlings, inhibiting their establishment in thisalpine treeline.