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Gradient analysis of reversed treelines and grasslands of the Valles Caldera, New Mexico

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Objective: Treeless meadows and parks are widespread but poorly understood features of the montane vegetation of the western USA. These communities frequently form reversed treelines where grassy valleys occur below forested slopes above. Our purpose was to assess the environmental correlates of such treelines, as well as patterns in the composition and diversity of grasslands and forest margins in the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Location: Valles Caldera National Preserve (35°50′-36°00′ N, 106°24′-106°37′ W, 2175-3150 m), Jemez Mountains, New Mexico, USA.

Methods: We conducted a gradient analysis based on 200 nested quadrats on transects crossing reversed treelines and spanning the compositional heterogeneity of grasslands. We used cluster analysis and non-metric multidimensional scaling to assess relationships between compositional variation and environmental variables.

Results: We found strong, highly significant relationships of the vegetation to gradients in slope inclination, soil texture, moisture, nutrient availability, and nighttime minimum temperatures. Reversed treelines are most strongly associated with shifts in the thermal regime, exhibit weaker relationships with soil texture and nutrient content, and show no relationship with gravimetric soil moisture. Gradients in aspect, soil moisture, and annual mean temperature are associated with compositional variation within grasslands and forest margins.

Conclusions: Lower nightly minimum temperatures and fewer consecutive frost-free days resulting from cold-air drainage may prevent tree seedling establishment in valley bottoms via photo-inhibition, tissue damage, or frost heaving. Fine-textured soils may also impede tree seedling establishment in valley bottoms. These findings lay the groundwork for experimental and physiological tests of these potential causes of these reversed treelines.


Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2007-02-01

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