Journal of Mountain Science

, Volume 13, Issue 7, pp 1154–1161 | Cite as

A size-gradient hypothesis for alpine treeline ecotones



Research on the stress gradient hypothesis recognizes that positive (i.e. facilitative) and negative (i.e. competitive) plant interactions change in intensity and effect relative to abiotic stress experienced on a gradient. Motivated by observations of alpine treeline ecotones, we suggest that this switch in interaction could operate along a gradient of relative size of individual plants. We propose that as neighbors increase in size relative to a focal plant they improve the environment for that plant up to a critical point. After this critical point is surpassed, however, increasing relative size of neighbors will degrade the environment such that the net interaction intensity becomes negative. We developed a conceptual (not site or species specific) individual based model to simulate a single species with recruitment, growth, and mortality dependent on the environment mediated by the relative size of neighbors. Growth and size form a feedback. Simulation results show that the size gradient model produces metrics similar to that of a stress gradient model. Visualizations reveal that the size gradient model produces spatial patterns that are similar to the complex ones observed at alpine treelines. Size-mediated interaction could be a mechanism of the stress gradient hypothesis or it could operate independent of abiotic stress.


Competition Ecotone Environmental gradient Plant interaction Stress gradient Facilitation 


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Copyright information

© Science Press, Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, CAS and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Geographical & Sustainability SciencesUniversity of IowaIowa CityUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeographyVirginia TechBlacksburgUSA

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