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Role of climate and herbivory on native and alien conifer seedling recruitment at and above the Fennoscandian tree line

Bognounou, Fidele, Hulme, Philip E., Oksanen, Lauri, Suominen, Otso, Olofsson, Johan
Journal of vegetation science 2018 v.29 no.4 pp. 573-584
Larix sibirica, Picea abies, Pinus sylvestris, conifers, dry environmental conditions, habitats, herbivores, probability, reindeer, rodents, seedlings, seeds, species diversity, species recruitment, treeline, trees, tundra, Norway, Scandinavia, Sweden
QUESTIONS: We investigated the importance of climate and herbivory on native and alien conifer colonization of the birch‐dominated Fennoscandian tree line by addressing the following questions: (a) are tree line and tundra habitats similarly suitable for conifer seedling recruitment; (b) do ungulate and rodent herbivores differentially impact seedling recruitment; and (c) how does the role of habitat and herbivory on seedling recruitment vary across a marked climate gradient? LOCATION: Northern Fennoscandia, Sweden (Vassijaure and Paddus), and Norway (Joatka and Seiland). METHODS: We conducted an experiment to assess the emergence rate, survival probability and height development of Norway spruce (Picea abies), Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and Siberian larch (Larix sibirica) seedlings. Three experimental plots (i.e., open control, reindeer exclosure and complete vertebrate exclosure) were established in both tree line and tundra habitats at each of the four locations. Seeds of the three conifer species were sown in each plot in June 1999 during three consecutive years. The surviving seedlings were counted in August to September 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2007. The height of all seedlings was measured in 2007. RESULTS: Our study reveals that Norway spruce, Scots pine and Siberian larch can regenerate from seed at and above the current tree line in northern Fennoscandia. Their performance was generally higher above tree line in tundra than at tree line, but depended on species identity, climate aridity and mammal herbivory, particularly by rodents. These results suggest that the species composition and latitudinal limit of the tree line in the future might depend not only on direct effects of the future climate on the current tree line species, but also on the intensity of alien and native conifer introductions, as well as changes in herbivore populations. CONCLUSION: If sufficient seeds of Norway spruce, Scots pine and Siberian larch should reach the current tree line, their performances will increase with a warmer and wetter climate, and this effect will be markedly modulated by herbivores (particularly rodents). Further work is required to extend these results to determine the ability of these conifers to become tree line‐forming species in the future.