Mountains and their biota are highly threatened by climate change. An important strategy that alpine plants use to escape this change consists in seed dispersal and the ability of seeds to germinate and establish in new sites at higher elevation. Little is known about the environmental factors that can affect the regeneration of plants above the elevational limit of growth. We present the first field evidence of recruitment success and plant performance in consequence of upward shift from the alpine to the nival life zone. Seeds of four alpine grassland species were sown at the current elevational limit of growth (site A) and 200 m upward, in a nival environment (site N) located in the Italian Alps. At site N part of the seeds were subjected to experimental manipulation of temperature (using an Open Top Chamber, OTC) or soil (using soil from site A). Recruitment success, soil surface temperature and water potential were monitored for five consecutive years. At the end of the experiment, vegetative growth and foliar traits were measured on individuals from all treatments. Mean annual soil surface temperature and length of the growing season at site A were ca. 2°C higher and ca. 44 days longer than at site N. Seedling emergence and seedling establishment generally were higher at N (with or without OTC) on local soil than at site A or at site N with soil originating from site A. Conversely, production was higher at site A and at site N with soil originating from site A. Recruitment success above the elevational leading edge was enhanced by coarser and nutrient-poor soil, which promoted seedling emergence and establishment but constrained plant growth. This trade-off between seedling recruitment and plant production underlines adaptive consequence and environmental filtering, both critical to forecast community assembly and responses of alpine species to climate warming.
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