Climatic Change

, Volume 123, Issue 2, pp 201–214

Ecological responses of plant species and communities to climate warming: upward shift or range filling processes?



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.

Supplementary material

10584_2014_1065_MOESM1_ESM.docx (21 kb)
Fig. 1Comparison of medians, quartiles and ranges of the Bray Curtis Distances between all iterative combinations of a) original to replicate plots (Or-Repl) and b) replicate plots (Between-Repl) for all selected vegetation communities, according to the procedure adopted by Ross et al. (2010). (DOCX 20 kb)
10584_2014_1065_MOESM2_ESM.docx (547 kb)
Fig. 2Multivariate analysis (DCA) carried out at inter-community level analyzing the fully comparable relevés (1953 vs 2003) showing the species plot (left side) and the relevés plot (right side). Legend: OD: Pioneer community (n = 8); LA: early successional community (n = 10); SH: late melting snowbed (n = 28); AP: early melting snowbed (n = 24); CC: alpine grasslands (n = 18); LP: alpine dwarf shrubs (n = 12). (DOCX 546 kb)
10584_2014_1065_MOESM3_ESM.docx (255 kb)
Fig. 3Biplot (species and sites) of the multivariate analysis (DCA) carried out analyzing the fully comparable relevés (1953 vs 2003) of pioneer (n = 4 for each year) and the early successional (n = 5 for each year) vegetation. Legend: square = pioneer vegetation; circle = early successional vegetation; white = 1953 data; grey = 2003 data. (DOCX 255 kb)
10584_2014_1065_MOESM4_ESM.docx (247 kb)
Fig. 4Biplot (species and sites) of the multivariate analysis (DCA) carried out analyzing the fully comparable relevés (1953 vs 2003) of snowbeds (n = 26 for each year). Legend: white = 1953 data; grey = 2003 data. (DOCX 247 kb)
10584_2014_1065_MOESM5_ESM.docx (438 kb)
Fig. 5Biplot (species and sites) of the multivariate analysis (DCA) carried out analyzing the fully comparable relevés (1953 vs 2003) of grasslands (n = 9 for each year) and alpine dwarf shrubs (n = 6 for each year). Legend: circles = grasslands; squares = alpine dwarf shrubs; white = 1953 data; grey = 2003 data. (DOCX 437 kb)
10584_2014_1065_MOESM6_ESM.docx (15 kb)
Table 1(DOCX 14 kb)
10584_2014_1065_MOESM7_ESM.docx (16 kb)
Table 2(DOCX 15 kb)
10584_2014_1065_MOESM8_ESM.docx (16 kb)
Table 3(DOCX 15 kb)
10584_2014_1065_MOESM9_ESM.docx (21 kb)
Table 4(DOCX 21 kb)


  1. Birks JHB, Willis KJ (2008) Alpines, trees, and refugia in Europe. Plant Ecol Divers 1(2):147–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Breshears DD, Huxman TE, Adams HD et al (2008) Vegetation synchronously leans upslope as climate warms. PNAS 105:11591–11592CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cannone N, Gerdol R (2003) Vegetation as an ecological indicator of surface instability in rock glaciers. Arct Antarct Alp Res 35:384–390CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cannone N, Sgorbati S, Guglielmin M (2007) Unexpected impacts of climate change on alpine vegetation. Front Ecol Environ 5(7):360–365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cannone N, Diolaiuti G, Guglielmin M, Smiraglia C (2008) Accelerating climate change impacts on alpine glacier forefield ecosystems in the European Alps. Ecol Appl 18:637–648CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cannone N, Lewkowicz AG, Guglielmin M (2010) Vegetation colonization of permafrost-related landslides, Ellesmere Island, Canadian High Arctic. J Geophys Res 115, G04020Google Scholar
  7. Chao A, Chazdon RL, Colwell RK, Shen TJ (2005) A new statistical approach for assessing similarity of species composition with incidence and abundance data. Ecol Lett 8:148–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dirnböck T, Essl F, Rabitsch W (2011) Disproportional risk for habitat loss of high-altitude endemic species under climate change. Glob Chang Biol 17:990–996CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dullinger S, Gattringer A, Thuiller W et al (2012a) Extinction debt of high-mountain plants under twenty-first-century climate change. Nat Clim Chang 2:619–622CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dullinger S, Willner W, Plutzar C et al (2012b) Post-glacial migration lag restricts range filling of plants in the European Alps. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 21:829–840CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Elmendorf SC, Henry GHR, Hollister RD et al (2012) Global assessment of experimental climate warming on tundra vegetation: heterogeneity over space and time. Ecol Lett 15:164–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Engler R, Randin CF, Thuiller W et al (2011) 21st century climate change threatens mountain flora unequally across Europe. Glob Chang Biol 17:2330–2341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fisher M, Stöcklin J (1997) Local extinctions of plants in remnants of extensively used calcareous grasslands 1950–1985. Conserv Biol 11(3):727–737CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gehrig-Fasel J, Guisan A, Zimmermann NE (2007) Tree line shifts in the Swiss Alps: climate change or land abandonment? J Veg Sci 18:571–582CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Giacomini V, Pignatti S (1955) Flora e vegetazione dell’alta valle del Braulio con speciale riferimento ai pascoli di altitudine. Mem Soc Ital Sci Nat 11:47–238Google Scholar
  16. Gottfried M, Pauli H, Futschik A et al (2012) Continent-wide response of mountain vegetation to climate change. Nat Clim Chang 2:111–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Holzinger B, Hülber K, Camenisch M, Grabherr G (2008) Changes in plant species richness over the last century in the eastern Swiss Alps: elevational gradient, bedrock effects and migration rates. Plant Ecol 195:179–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Jackson ST, Sax DF (2009) Balancing biodiversity in a changing environment: extinction debt, immigration credit and species turnover. Trends Ecol Evol 25(3):153–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Keller F, Goyette S, Beniston M (2005) Sensitivity analysis of snow cover to climate change scenarios and their impact on plant habitats in alpine terrain. Clim Chang 72:299–319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kelly AE, Goulden ML (2008) Rapid shifts in plant distribution with recent climate change. PNAS 105(33):11823–11826CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kullman L (2010) Alpine flora dynamics: a critical review of responses to climate change in the Swedish Scandes since the early 1950s. Nord J Bot 28:398–408CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lauber K, Wagner G (1998) Flora helvetica. Verlag Paul Hapt Ed, Berne, p 1614Google Scholar
  23. Lenoir J, Gégout JC, Marquet PA et al (2008) A significant upward shift in plant species optimum elevation during the 20th century. Science 320:1768–1771CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lenoir J, Gégout JC, Guisan A et al (2010) Going against the flow: potential mechanisms for unexpected downslope range shifts in a warming climate. Ecography 33:295–303Google Scholar
  25. Lenoir J, Graae BJ, Aarrestad PA et al (2013) Local temperatures inferred from plant communities suggest strong spatial buffering of climate warming across Northern Europe. Glob Chang Biol 19:1470–1481CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Maggini R, Lehmann A, Kery M et al (2011) Are Swiss birds tracking climate change? Detecting elevational shifts using response curve shapes. Ecol Model 222:21–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Magurran AE (2004) Measuring biological diversity. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  28. Pauchard A, Kueffer C, Dietz H et al (2009) Ain’t no mountain high enough: plant invasions reaching new elevations. Front Ecol Environ 7:479–486CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pauli H, Gottfried M, Reiter K et al (2007) Signals of range expansions and contractions of vascular plants in the high Alps: observations (1994–2004) at the GLORIA* master site Schrankogel, Tyrol, Austria. Glob Chang Biol 13:147–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Pignatti S (1982) Flora d’Italia. Three volumes. Edagricole, BolognaGoogle Scholar
  31. Randin CF, Engler R, Normand S et al (2009) Climate change and plant distribution: local models predict high-elevation persistence. Glob Chang Biol 15:1557–1569CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ross LC, Woodin SJ, Hester A et al (2010) How important is plot relocation accuracy when interpreting re-visitation studies of vegetation change? Plant Ecol Divers 3:1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Scherrer D, Körner C (2011) Topographically controlled thermal-habitat differentiation buffers alpine plant diversity against climate warming. J Biogeogr 38:406–416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Schöb C, Kammer PM, Choler P, Veit H (2009) Small-scale plant species distribution in snowbeds and its sensitivity to climate change. Plant Ecol 200:91–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. ter Braak CJF, Smilauer P (1998) CANOCO. Reference manual and user’s guide to CANOCO for windows. Software for canonical community ordination (ver. 4). Centre for Biometry, WageningenGoogle Scholar
  36. Theurillat JP, Guisan A (2001) Potential impact of climate change on vegetation in the European Alps: a review. Clim Chang 50:77–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Vetaas OR (2002) Realized and potential climate niches: a comparison of four Rhododendron tree species. J Biogeogr 29:545–554CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Walther G-R, Beißner S, Burga CA (2005) Trends in the upward shift of alpine plants. J Veg Sci 16:541–48Google Scholar
  39. Westhoff V, van der Maarel E (1973). The Braun-Blanquet approach. In: Whittaker RH (ed.) Handbook of vegeta-tion science, part 5. Classification and ordination of communities. Junk, The Hague, pp 617–726Google Scholar
  40. Wilhalm T, Niklfeld H, Gutermann W (2006) Katalog der Gefaesspflanzen Suedtirols. Folio Verl, Wien/BozenGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Theoretical and Applied SciencesInsubria UniversityComoItaly
  2. 2.Department of Environmental BiologyUniversity Roma “La Sapienza”RomeItaly

Personalised recommendations