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Changes in plant community composition lag behind climate warming in lowland forests

Abstract

Climate change is driving latitudinal and altitudinal shifts in species distribution worldwide1,2, leading to novel species assemblages3,4. Lags between these biotic responses and contemporary climate changes have been reported for plants and animals5. Theoretically, the magnitude of these lags should be greatest in lowland areas, where the velocity of climate change is expected to be much greater than that in highland areas6. We compared temperature trends to temperatures reconstructed from plant assemblages (observed in 76,634 surveys) over a 44-year period in France (1965–2008). Here we report that forest plant communities had responded to 0.54 °C of the effective increase of 1.07 °C in highland areas (500–2,600 m above sea level), while they had responded to only 0.02 °C of the 1.11 °C warming trend in lowland areas. There was a larger temperature lag (by 3.1 times) between the climate and plant community composition in lowland forests than in highland forests. The explanation of such disparity lies in the following properties of lowland, as compared to highland, forests: the higher proportion of species with greater ability for local persistence as the climate warms7, the reduced opportunity for short-distance escapes8,9, and the greater habitat fragmentation. Although mountains are currently considered to be among the ecosystems most threatened by climate change (owing to mountaintop extinction), the current inertia of plant communities in lowland forests should also be noted, as it could lead to lowland biotic attrition10.

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Figure 1: Theoretical response of plant communities to climate warming.
Figure 2: Comparison of floristically (green) and climatically (red) reconstructed temperature trends between 1965 and 2008.
Figure 3: Compositional changes in the plant communities of lowland and highland forests according to four different biogeographic groups.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J.-D. Bontemps and P. Mérian for comments; V. Pérez, F. Lebourgeois and E. K. Cavalheri for help in the compilation of the meteorological database; V. Pérez for technical support in GIS; I. Seynave for management of the EcoPlant database; H. Brisse, J. Drapier and F. Morneau for contributions to the Sophy and NFI databases; and all who have participated in the conception of the EcoPlant, Sophy and NFI databases. The phytoecological database (EcoPlant) was funded by the French Institute of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Engineering (ENGREF, AgroParisTech), the National Forest Department (ONF), and the French Agency for Environment and Energy Management (ADEME). J.L. acknowledges a grant from the Danish Council for Independent Research – Natural Sciences (272-07-0242 to J.-C. Svenning). This study was funded through a PhD grant to R.B. by ADEME and the Regional Council of Lorraine.

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Authors

Contributions

R.B. designed the study, methodology and modelling approach, performed all the statistical analysis and wrote the paper; P.d.R. provided the Sophy database; C.V. provided the NFI database; J.-C.G. provided the EcoPlant database, helped to design the methodology and supervised the work; R.B. and G.R. contributed equally to format the floristic database; J.-C.P. advised the use of the Breiman’s random forest regression to infer temperatures from the plant assemblages; R.B. and C.P. contributed equally to compute the climate model of historic temperature prediction; J.L. contributed actively to improve the clarity of the paper. All authors discussed and commented on the results.

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Correspondence to Romain Bertrand.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-10 with legends, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Table 1 and additional references. (PDF 5173 kb)

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Bertrand, R., Lenoir, J., Piedallu, C. et al. Changes in plant community composition lag behind climate warming in lowland forests. Nature 479, 517–520 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10548

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