Temperature is a primary driver of the distribution of biodiversity as well as of ecosystem boundaries1, 2. Declining temperature with increasing elevation in montane systems has long been recognized as a major factor shaping plant community biodiversity, metabolic processes, and ecosystem dynamics3, 4. Elevational gradients, as thermoclines, also enable prediction of long-term ecological responses to climate warming5, 6, 7. One of the most striking manifestations of increasing elevation is the abrupt transitions from forest to treeless alpine tundra8. However, whether there are globally consistent above- and belowground responses to these transitions remains an open question4. To disentangle the direct and indirect effects of temperature on ecosystem properties, here we evaluate replicate treeline ecotones in seven temperate regions of the world. We find that declining temperatures with increasing elevation did not affect tree leaf nutrient concentrations, but did reduce ground-layer community-weighted plant nitrogen, leading to the strong stoichiometric convergence of ground-layer plant community nitrogen to phosphorus ratios across all regions. Further, elevation-driven changes in plant nutrients were associated with changes in soil organic matter content and quality (carbon to nitrogen ratios) and microbial properties. Combined, our identification of direct and indirect temperature controls over plant communities and soil properties in seven contrasting regions suggests that future warming may disrupt the functional properties of montane ecosystems, particularly where plant community reorganization outpaces treeline advance.
Mayor, JR, Sanders, NJ, Classen, AT, Bardgett, RD, Clément, JC, Fajardo, A, Lavorel, S, Sundqvist, MK, Bahn, M, Chisholm, C, Cieraad, E. (2017) Elevation alters ecosystem properties across temperate treelines globally. Nature, 542(7639), 91-95. View PDF –