Ecological responses of plant species and communities to climate warming: upward shift or range filling processes?
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The fate of alpine species in response to climate warming is still unclear. We analyze effects of climate warming on the composition of alpine plants communities and unravel the range filling of communities within a belt from long-term true upward shift processes. In the European Alps we re-sampled in 2003 the vegetation at sites studied in 1953 and analyzed the changes at intra- and inter-community level. Since 1953 all communities experienced a high species turnover, leading to an overall increase in species richness as new species exceeded species losses. The dominant species mainly declined allowing the potential expansion of competitors and/or of new species. The main recruitment sources are neighbor communities within the same elevation belt performing biotic exchanges with other plant communities in the same altitudinal belts. The changes of species distribution curves with elevation emphasized that more than half of the most widespread persisting species exhibited downward shifts instead of upward shifts. Upward shifts from lower elevation belts and of nonnative species were very limited. One third of the persisting species declined and could be used as a proxy to measure the extinction debt. Therefore the fate of plant communities will depend on the ability of the original species to persist and fill the available ecological gaps. Species persistence may be crucial in developing adaptation and environmental protection strategies.
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