Disturbance and the elevation ranges of woody plant species in the mountains of Costa Rica

Ecol Evol. 2019 Nov 25;9(24):14330-14340. doi: 10.1002/ece3.5870. eCollection 2019 Dec.


Aim: To understand how disturbance-here defined as a transient reduction in competition-can shape plant distributions along elevation gradients. Theory suggests that disturbance may increase elevation ranges, especially at the lower range limits, through reduced competitive exclusion. Nevertheless, to date this relationship remains unclear.

Location: Mountains of Costa Rica.

Methods: We compared the elevation range of woody stems over 10 cm dbh ("trees") observed in plots along two transects spanning a range of elevations in secondary (regrowth) and old-growth forest (409 and 249 species, respectively). We also estimated these elevation ranges using nationwide data. In addition, we examined the influence of stem size and plot scale basal area (as a measure of competition) on species elevation range limits in the two gradients.

Results: In general, tree species ranges increased with elevation. Species in the secondary forest had broader elevation ranges (100-318 m broader than species in the old-growth forest; Wilcoxon: p-value <.001). Also, in the secondary transect, individuals with greater diameters had broader elevation ranges than those observed as smaller trees (137 m broader; Kruskal-Wallis: p-value = .03). The lower range limit of species occurred more frequently in plots with lower (vs. higher) basal area than expected by chance in both forest types. We also observed higher elevation upper limits in old growth, but not in secondary forests, with lower (vs. higher) basal area.

Main conclusion: Disturbance relaxes the constraints imposed by competition and extends effective elevation ranges of species, particularly those in secondary forest, to warmer and cooler climates (minimum increase equivalent to about 0.6-1.4°C). Thus, suitable disturbance may assist species persistence under climate change. We believe this is the first study indicating a consistent relation between disturbance and woody plant species distributions along elevation gradients.

Keywords: biotic interactions; competition; distributions; disturbance; elevation ranges; range boundaries; secondary forest; succession.