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Living on the edge: adaptive and plastic responses of the tree Nothofagus pumilio to a long-term transplant experiment predict rear-edge upward expansion

Mathiasen, Paula, Premoli, Andrea C.
Oecologia 2016 v.181 no.2 pp. 607-619
Nothofagus pumilio, evolutionary adaptation, experimental design, extinction, genotype, global warming, leaves, models, montane forests, phenotypic plasticity, plant response, prediction, pure stands, quantitative traits, reproductive performance, reproductive success, treeline, trees, Argentina
Current climate change affects the competitive ability and reproductive success of many species, leading to local extinctions, adjustment to novel local conditions by phenotypic plasticity or rapid adaptation, or tracking their optima through range shifts. However, many species have limited ability to expand to suitable areas. Altitudinal gradients, with abrupt changes in abiotic conditions over short distances, represent “natural experiments” for the evaluation of ecological and evolutionary responses under scenarios of climate change. Nothofagus pumilio is the tree species which dominates as pure stands the montane forests of Patagonia. We evaluated the adaptive value of variation in quantitative traits of N. pumilio under contrasting conditions of the altitudinal gradient with a long-term reciprocal transplant experimental design. While high-elevation plants show little response in plant, leaf, and phenological traits to the experimental trials, low-elevation ones show greater plasticity in their responses to changing environments, particularly at high elevation. Our results suggest a relatively reduced potential for evolutionary adaptation of high-elevation genotypes, and a greater evolutionary potential of low-elevation ones. Under global warming scenarios of forest upslope migration, high-elevation variants may be outperformed by low-elevation ones during this process, leading to the local extinction and/or replacement of these genotypes. These results challenge previous models and predictions expected under global warming for altitudinal gradients, on which the leading edge is considered to be the upper treeline forests.