Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. Parmesan, C. & Yohe, G. A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature 421, 37–42 (2003)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Rosenzweig, C. et al. in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (eds Parry, M. L. et al.) 79–131 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Williams, J. W. & Jackson, S. T. Novel climates, no-analog communities, and ecological surprises. Front. Ecol. Environ 5, 475–482 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Wing, S. L. et al. Transient floral change and rapid global warming at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. Science 310, 993–996 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Davis, M. B. in Community Ecology (eds Diamond, J. & Case, T. J. ) 269–284 (Harper and Row, 1986)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Loarie, S. R. et al. The velocity of climate change. Nature 462, 1052–1055 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Thuiller, W., Lavorel, S., Araujo, M. B., Sykes, M. T. & Prentice, I. C. Climate change threats to plant diversity in Europe. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 102, 8245–8250 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Jump, A. S., Matyas, C. & Penuelas, J. The altitude-for-latitude disparity in the range retractions of woody species. Trends Ecol. Evol. 24, 694–701 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Scherrer, D. & Korner, C. Topographically controlled thermal-habitat differentiation buffers alpine plant diversity against climate warming. J. Biogeogr. 38, 406–416 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Colwell, R. K., Brehm, G., Cardelus, C. L., Gilman, A. C. & Longino, J. T. Global warming, elevational range shifts, and lowland biotic attrition in the wet tropics. Science 322, 258–261 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Crimmins, S. M., Dobrowski, S. Z., Greenberg, J. A., Abatzoglou, J. T. & Mynsberge, A. R. Changes in climatic water balance drive downhill shifts in plant species' optimum elevations. Science 331, 324–327 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Doak, D. F. & Morris, W. F. Demographic compensation and tipping points in climate-induced range shifts. Nature 467, 959–962 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Lenoir, J. et al. Going against the flow: potential mechanisms for unexpected downslope range shifts in a warming climate. Ecography 33, 295–303 (2010)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Cannone, N., Sgorbati, S. & Guglielmin, M. Unexpected impacts of climate change on alpine vegetation. Front. Ecol. Environ 5, 360–364 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Hillebrand, H., Soininen, J. & Snoeijs, P. Warming leads to higher species turnover in a coastal ecosystem. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 1181–1193 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. le Roux, P. C. & McGeoch, M. A. Rapid range expansion and community reorganization in response to warming. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 2950–2962 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Lenoir, J., Gegout, J.-C., Dupouey, J.-L., Bert, D. & Svenning, J.-C. Forest plant community changes during 1989–2007 in response to climate warming in the Jura Mountains (France and Switzerland). J. Veg. Sci. 21, 949–964 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Moritz, C. et al. Impact of a century of climate change on small-mammal communities in Yosemite National Park, USA. Science 322, 261–264 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Lenoir, J., Gegout, J.-C., Marquet, P. A., de Ruffray, P. & Brisse, H. A significant upward shift in plant species optimum elevation during the 20th century. Science 320, 1768–1771 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Brohan, P., Kennedy, J. J., Harris, I., Tett, S. F. B. & Jones, P. D. Uncertainty estimates in regional and global observed temperature changes: a new data set from 1850. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 111, D12106. 1–21 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Heikkilä, M. & Seppä, H. A 11,000 yr palaeotemperature reconstruction from the southern boreal zone in Finland. Quat. Sci. Rev. 22, 541–554 (2003)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Vennetier, M. & Ripert, C. Forest flora turnover with climate change in the Mediterranean region: a case study in Southeastern France. For. Ecol. Mgmt 258, S56–S63 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Primack, R. B. & Miao, S. L. Dispersal can limit local plant-distribution. Conserv. Biol. 6, 513–519 (1992)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Huntley, B. Evolutionary response to climatic change? Heredity 98, 247–248 (2007)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Jump, A. S. & Penuelas, J. Running to stand still: adaptation and the response of plants to rapid climate change. Ecol. Lett. 8, 1010–1020 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Jackson, S. T. & Sax, D. F. Balancing biodiversity in a changing environment: extinction debt, immigration credit and species turnover. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25, 153–160 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Walther, G. R. Community and ecosystem responses to recent climate change. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 2019–2024 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Ninyerola, M., Pons, X. & Roure, J. M. A methodological approach of climatological modelling of air temperature and precipitation through GIS techniques. Int. J. Climatol. 20, 1823–1841 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. ter Braak, C. J. F. & van Dam, H. Inferring pH from diatoms: a comparison of old and new calibration methods. Hydrobiologia 178, 209–223 (1989)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Breiman, L. Random forests. Mach. Learn. 45, 5–32 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Romain Bertrand.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing