Spatial and temporal functional changes in alpine summit vegetation are driven by increases in shrubs and graminoids
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Classical approaches to investigating temporal and spatial changes in community composition offer only partial insight into the ecology that drives species distribution, community patterns and processes, whereas a functional approach can help to determine many of the underlying mechanisms that drive such patterns. Here, we aim to bring these two approaches together to understand such drivers, using an elevation gradient of sites, a repeat species survey and species functional traits. We used data from a repeat vegetation survey on five alpine summits and measured plant height, leaf area, leaf dry matter content and specific leaf area (SLA) for every species recorded in the surveys. We combined species abundances with trait values to produce a community trait-weighted mean (CTWM) for each trait, and then combined survey results with the CTWMs. Across the gradient of summits, more favourable conditions for plant growth (warmer, longer growing season) occurred at the lower elevations. Vegetation composition changes between 2004 and 2011 (according to non-metric multi-dimensional scaling ordination) were strongly affected by the high and increasing abundance of species with high SLA at high elevations. Species life-form categories strongly affected compositional changes and functional composition, with increasing dominance of tall shrubs and graminoids at the lower-elevation summits, and an overall increase in graminoids across the gradient. The CTWM for plant height and leaf dry matter content significantly decreased with elevation, whereas for leaf area and SLA it significantly increased. The significant relationships between CTWM and elevation may suggest specific ecological processes, namely plant competition and local productivity, influencing vegetation preferentially across the elevation gradient, with the dominance of shrubs and graminoids driving the patterns in the CTWMs
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Conservation and Biodiversity