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Migration, invasion and decline: changes in recruitment and forest structure in a warming-linked shift of European beech forest in Catalonia (NE Spain)

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Altitudinal upward shifts of species’ ranges have occurred across a wide range of taxonomic groups and geographical locations during the twentieth century in response to current climate warming. However, actual data of plant species’ altitudinal shifts are still scarce and not always clear. Here we provide a more detailed investigation of a previously reported European beech Fagus sylvatica forest altitudinal shift in the Montseny Mountains (Catalonia, NE Spain) now based on field photographic survey and on the population age structure and the recruitment patterns in the high Fagus limit (HFL), the central forest area (CFA) and the low Fagus limit (LFL). Monitoring of the lowest altitudinal range shows that beech forest is being progressively replaced by Mediterranean holm oak forest. Holm oaks are characterized by recruitment rates more than three times higher than those of beech in the LFL in the last decades. The percentage of young individuals in the LFL is only half that in the HFL and CFA. In the highest altitudinal range, present day and early 20th century photographs show that the HFL has gained density and has shifted altitudinally upwards, advancing with establishment of new, vigorous outpost trees (13 individuals per each 100 m of tree-line). They are mostly (89%) younger than 35 yr old and mostly (97%) located up to 70 m (with a few up to 105 m) ground surface distance above the current tree line (36–51 m altitude) at the highest altitudes (1600–1700 m). The beech forest upward shift is a likely consequence of warming, but land-use practice changes (cessation of burning by shepherds) have made it possible. These changes in vegetation distribution and population structure constitute a new indication of the complex global change effects on life in mountain ecosystems.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2007

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