Response of rainforest trees to climate warming along an elevational gradient in the Peruvian Andes
Stone, Philippa Mary Rose
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The tropical rainforests of the Peruvian Andes are some of the most biodiverse and most vulnerable to climate warming in the world. The Andes are predicted to experience substantial increases in warming of between +2 °C to +5 °C by the end of the century, in addition to an increases in the frequency of high temperature extremes, drought and flood events. The response of these forests to climate change over the next century has global relevance, due to the high levels of endemic species present and the potential role these areas will play as refugia for lowland species. Despite this, the response of tropical montane forests (TMCFs) to climate change remains under-studied. Our current understanding of how Andean species will respond to climate change is based on studies of past compositional changes. Upslope shifts in plant communities of approximately 1.2 - 2.0 m·y-1 have been observed along elevational gradients within Central and South America over the last decade. Based on these migration rates, it has been estimated that the majority of communities will lag behind increases in temperature by 5.5 °C by the end of the century. The implications of this for populations at the trailing range edge is unclear, due to a lack of mechanistic data concerning the acclimatory limits of rainforest species. When faced with rapid warming plant species will need to rapidly adapt, acclimate or migrate in order to survive. In the case of Andean species, migration rates may not be sufficient for a species to remain within its optimal thermal niche and adaptive responses will likely be too slow to be effective, hence individuals will have to acclimate in situ to prevent a decline in performance. The acclimatory ability of species can be quantified by measuring changes in performance, leaf physiology and anatomy in response to experimental manipulations of climate, however such studies are rare within the tropics. Here we carried out a seedling transplant experiment, utilising an extensive 400- 3500 m asl elevational gradient in the Peruvian Andes, to simulate climate warming and upslope migration of tree seedlings under real-world conditions. To provide context for the transplant study, natural variation in leaf anatomical traits and physiological stress were explored for twelve species belonging to lowland (LF), mid-elevation (LMF) and tropical montane cloud forest communities. Adults and seedlings from the centre and furthest-most extent of each species’ elevational range were studied and compared. Seedlings of each elevational forest community were transplanted downslope and upslope of their local elevational range by the equivalent of ±2 °C and ±4 °C in mean annual temperature. The experiment followed the transplanted seedlings of eleven species over a one year period, monitoring survival, growth and physiological stress (Fv/Fm) of individuals. The acclimatory ability of a subset of these species was quantified by measuring changes in photosynthetic capacity (Vcmax and Jmax), respiratory capacity (Rd) and anatomical traits (Na, Pa, LMA, LDMC) in response to transplantation. The results showed that within the natural population there was little evidence of leaf trait acclimation to elevational shifts in climate, but also little evidence of physiological stress at the trailing range edge. There were however differences in the leaf trait strategies employed by each elevational community, increasing in abiotic stress-tolerance with elevation. Physiological stress was greatest in the seedling population and, unlike the adult population, increased slightly at the trailing edge. This indicated that seedlings were more vulnerable to warming than their adult counterparts and at mid-elevations TMCF seedlings were more vulnerable than LMF seedlings. Seedling survival and growth declined in response to transplantation away from the home elevation for the majority of species, with upslope declines as a result of abiotic limitations, and downslope declines due to biotic limitations. All seedlings were found to be able to acclimate their respiratory capacity in response to transplantation, however this was not the case for photosynthetic capacity. LMF species performed significantly better than TMCF seedlings with transplantation, demonstrating a greater acclimatory capacity for photosynthesis. LMF species were able to adjust Jmax in order to maintain rates at ambient temperatures, but were not able to upregulate Vcmax upslope, whereas TMCF species were not able to respond in either transplant direction. Overall, these findings suggest that under moderate warming scenarios LMF species will have a competitive advantage over TMCF species at mid-elevations, gradually expanding their range into TMCF species’ habitat over the next century. As a result of this and due to the slow pace of upslope migration, we predict that TMCF species will undergo range retractions and possible extinctions. The speed of this response will be determined by the trajectory of future warming and the frequency of extreme climatic events.