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Tree cover at fine and coarse spatial grains interacts with shade tolerance to shape plant species distributions across the Alps

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The role of competition for light among plants has long been recognised at local scales, but its importance for plant species distributions at larger spatial scales has generally been ignored. Tree cover modifies the local abiotic conditions below the canopy, notably by reducing light availability, and thus, also the performance of species that are not adapted to low‐light conditions. However, this local effect may propagate to coarser spatial grains, by affecting colonisation probabilities and local extinction risks of herbs and shrubs. To assess the effect of tree cover at both the plot‐ and landscape‐grain sizes (approximately 10‐m and 1‐km), we fit generalised linear models (GLMs) for the plot‐level distributions of 960 species of herbs and shrubs using 6935 vegetation plots across the European Alps. We ran four models with different combinations of variables (climate, soil and tree cover) at both spatial grains for each species. We used partial regressions to evaluate the independent effects of plot‐ and landscape‐grain tree cover on plot‐level plant communities. Finally, the effects on species‐specific elevational range limits were assessed by simulating a removal experiment comparing the species distributions under high and low tree cover. Accounting for tree cover improved the model performance, with the probability of the presence of shade‐tolerant species increasing with increasing tree cover, whereas shade‐intolerant species showed the opposite pattern. The tree cover effect occurred consistently at both the plot and landscape spatial grains, albeit most strongly at the former. Importantly, tree cover at the two grain sizes had partially independent effects on plot‐level plant communities. With high tree cover, shade‐intolerant species exhibited narrower elevational ranges than with low tree cover whereas shade‐tolerant species showed wider elevational ranges. These findings suggest that forecasts of climate‐related range shifts for herb and shrub species may be modified by tree cover dynamics.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2015

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