Examinations of upper elevational distribution limits of tree species can provide indications of how subalpine vegetation responds to the ongoing climate warming. Dynamics and functional mechanisms of elevational treelines are reasonably well understood, while explanations for tree species-specific upper elevational distribution limits below the treeline still remain unclear. In this study, we used a state-of-the-art dendroecological approach to reconstruct long-term changes of species-specific upper elevational distribution limits of different plant functional type (i.e., light-demanding deciduous coniferous larch at treeline, shade-tolerant evergreen coniferous fir and shade-intolerant deciduous broad-leaved birch below treeline) along elevational gradients in the Qinling Mountains of north-central China. Over the past three centuries, all the upper species limits shifted upslope as a response to climate warming. However, the warming-induced upslope migrations showed substantial differences, displaying the maximum upward shift of larch with an average elevation of 24.7 m during the past century, while only a slight advance of the non-treeline tree species. The disparity in elevational advance of upper species limits might be attributable to the presence of interspecific competition, showing that the non-treeline tree species experienced intermediate interspecific competition while the treeline tree species experienced no interspecific competition. Thus, our findings suggested that in addition to climate warming, biotic interaction may contribute much to shaping the species-specific upper limit dynamics. This study not only enhanced mechanistic understanding of long-term species-specific upper elevational distribution limit changes, but also highlighted the jointly effects of rising temperatures and species interactions on subalpine vegetation dynamics.
Keywords: Climate warming; Interspecific competition; Non-treeline tree species; The Qinling Mountains; Upper species limits.
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