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What shapes the altitudinal range of a high mountain Mediterranean plant? Recruitment probabilities from ovule to seedling stage

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Recruitment is a complex process consisting of sequential stages affected by biotic interactions and abiotic factors. Assessment of these sequential stages and corresponding subprocesses may be useful in identifying the most critical stages. Accordingly, to assess the factors that may determine the altitudinal range limits of the high mountain Mediterranean plant Silene ciliata, a set of demographic stages, from flower production to establishment of 2-yr-old plants, and their influence on recruitment probability were examined using a step-by-step approach. We integrated florivory, pollination and pre-dispersal seed predation as pre-dispersal factors, and seedling emergence and survival as post-dispersal determinants of recruitment. Three populations were monitored at the southernmost margin of the species along its local altitudinal range. Previous studies suggest that seediness is strongly limited by summer drought especially at the lower boundary of the species, a situation that may worsen under current global warming.

Our results showed that recruitment was mainly limited by low seed production in the pre-dispersal stage and low seedling emergence and survival in the post-dispersal stage, probably due to environmental harshness in summer. By contrast, biotic factors responsible for propagule loss, such as flower and fruit predation, had a minor effect on the probability of plant recruitment. Although the relative importance of transition probabilities was similar among populations along the altitudinal range, comparatively lower flower production significantly reduced the number of recruited plants at the lowest altitude population. This demographic bottleneck, together with increased competition with other species favoured by climate warming, might collapse population growth and limit persistence at the lower altitudinal range of the species, raising its low local altitudinal edge.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2008

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