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Extinction debt of high-mountain plants under twenty-first-century climate change


Quantitative estimates of the range loss of mountain plants under climate change have so far mostly relied on static geographical projections of species’ habitat shifts1,2,3. Here, we use a hybrid model4 that combines such projections with simulations of demography and seed dispersal to forecast the climate-driven spatio-temporal dynamics of 150 high-mountain plant species across the European Alps. This model predicts average range size reductions of 44–50% by the end of the twenty-first century, which is similar to projections from the most ‘optimistic’ static model (49%). However, the hybrid model also indicates that population dynamics will lag behind climatic trends and that an average of 40% of the range still occupied at the end of the twenty-first century will have become climatically unsuitable for the respective species, creating an extinction debt5,6. Alarmingly, species endemic to the Alps seem to face the highest range losses. These results caution against optimistic conclusions from moderate range size reductions observed during the twenty-first century as they are likely to belie more severe longer-term effects of climate warming on mountain plants.

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Figure 1: Predicted average range size reduction of 150 mountain plant species of the European Alps during the twenty-first century.
Figure 2: Spatial mismatch between sites predicted to be occupied and sites predicted to be suitable.
Figure 3: Proportion of species predicted to have lost >80% or 100% of their range by the end of the twenty-first century.

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This research was financially supported by the EU 6th Framework Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration (project ECOCHANGE, GOCE-CT-2007-036866) as well as by the Danish Council for Independent Research—Natural Sciences (grant 272-07-0242 to J-C.S.) and the ANR Diversitalp project (ANR-2007-BDIV-014). We thank the Vienna Scientific Cluster ( for granting access to its computational resources. Niche-based models were performed using the CIMENT infrastructure (, supported by the Rhône-Alpes region (GRANT CPER07-13 CIRA). Thanks to S. Rechnitzer for improving the English.

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S.D., W.T., N.E.Z., A. Guisan and K.H. designed the study. N.E.Z., A.P. and D.R.S. processed the climatic data, and W.W. prepared the soil map. S.D., W.T., N.E.Z., A. Guisan, W.W., M.C., T.D., A.F., J.L., J-C.S., U.S. and P.V. contributed vegetation plot data. W.W. and J.L. compiled the plot database. W.T. calibrated and fitted all niche-based models. S.E., S.D. and K.H. collected plant seeds and S.E. measured seed traits. T.M. and M.L. implemented dispersal models and S.D. calibrated dispersal kernels. S.D., A. Gattringer, K.H. and M.L. designed the hybrid model, A. Gattringer translated it into C code and ran the code on the Vienna Scientific Cluster. K.H. and S.D. analysed the simulation results. D.M. and C.P. did all geographic information system work. S.D. wrote the paper, with substantial help from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to Stefan Dullinger.

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Dullinger, S., Gattringer, A., Thuiller, W. et al. Extinction debt of high-mountain plants under twenty-first-century climate change. Nature Clim Change 2, 619–622 (2012).

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