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Human disturbance and upward expansion of plants in a warming climate


Climate change is expected to trigger an upward expansion of plants in mountain regions1,2 and, although there is strong evidence that many native species have already shifted their distributions to higher elevations1,3,4,5,6, little is known regarding how fast non-native species might respond to climate change. By analysing 131,394 occurrence records of 1,334 plant species collected over 20 years in the European Alps, we found that non-natives are spreading upwards approximately twice as fast as natives. Whereas the spread of natives was enhanced by traits favouring longer dispersal distances, this was not the case for non-natives. This was due to the non-native species pool already being strongly biased towards species that had traits facilitating spread. A large proportion of native and non-native species seemed to be able to spread upwards faster than the current velocity of climate change. In particular, long-distance dispersal events and proximity to roads proved to be key drivers for the observed rapid spread. Our findings highlight that invasions by non-native species into native alpine communities are a potentially significant additional pressure on these vulnerable ecosystems that are already likely to suffer dramatic vegetation changes with ongoing warming and increasing human activity in mountain regions.

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Figure 1: Frequency distribution of mean elevation, elevation range, and vertical spread rates for natives and non-natives.
Figure 2: Vertical spread rates and proximity to roads of native and non-native plant species along the elevational gradient.
Figure 3: Relationship between vertical spread rates and distance to roads for all plant species.


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The work of L.M., A.B. and F.P. were partly funded by the Autonomous Province of Trento (Italy) within the ACE-SAP project (University and Scientific Research Service regulation number 23, June 12, 2008). S.A. was funded by the Kone Foundation.

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L.M. conceived and designed the research; A.B. and F.P. collected and compiled the distribution data; M.D., S.A. and L.M. analysed data; M.D., P.E.H. and L.M. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Matteo Dainese or Lorenzo Marini.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Dainese, M., Aikio, S., Hulme, P. et al. Human disturbance and upward expansion of plants in a warming climate. Nature Clim Change 7, 577–580 (2017).

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