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Phenology, growth, and fecundity of eight subarctic tundra species in response to snowmelt manipulations


The snow cover extent is an important factor for the structure and composition of arctic and alpine tundra communities. Over the last few decades, snowmelt in many arctic and alpine regions has advanced, causing the growing season to start earlier and last longer. In a field experiment in subarctic tundra in Interior Alaska, I manipulated the timing of snowmelt and measured the response in mortality, phenology, growth, and reproduction of the eight dominant plant species. I then tested whether the phenological development of these species was controlled by snowmelt date or by temperature (in particular growing degree days, GDD). In order to expand our understanding of plant sensitivity to snowmelt timing, I explored whether the response patterns can be generalized with regard to the temporal niche of each species. Differences in the phenology between treatments were only found for the first stages of the phenological development (=phenophases). The earlier the temporal niche (i.e., the sooner after snowmelt a species develops) the more its phenology was sensitive to snowmelt. Later phenophases were mostly controlled by GDD, especially in late-developing species. In no species did an earlier snowmelt and a longer growing season directly enhance plant fitness or fecundity, in spite of the changes in the timing of plant development. In conclusion, the temporal niche of a species’ phenological development could be a predictor of its response to snowmelt timing. However, only the first phenophases were susceptible to changes in snowmelt, and no short-term effects on plant fitness were found.

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I am grateful to C. Rixen for help throughout this study, C·P.H. Mulder for temperature data, P. Bebi, V. Stoeckli, and anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript, the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences for travel grants, and the Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks for allowing me to use its facilities. This study was financed by the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF.

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Correspondence to Sonja Wipf.



See Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2 Results of the linear mixed-effects models (LMEs) analyzing the impact of snowmelt date and snowmelt treatments on the mortality, the timing of the vegetative phenology, and the growing temperature sums accumulated until the start of each phenophase (GDD growing degree day sums > 5°C), and the shoot growth of eight subarctic tundra species in Interior Alaska
Table 3 Results of the linear mixed-effects models (LMEs) analyzing the impact of snowmelt date and snowmelt treatments on the timing of the reproductive phenology, growing temperature sums accumulated until the start of the respective phenophase (GDD growing degree days sums > 5°C), and the fecundity of four subarctic tundra species in Interior Alaska

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Wipf, S. Phenology, growth, and fecundity of eight subarctic tundra species in response to snowmelt manipulations. Plant Ecol 207, 53–66 (2010).

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  • Dwarf shrub heath
  • Growth
  • Phenology
  • Reproduction
  • Snow ecology
  • Winter climate change