Several mechanistic hypotheses have been developed to explain the existence of alpine treelines worldwide. The reproduction limitation hypothesis postulates that reproductive processes such as seed production and dispersal are restricted in treeline environments, thereby limiting the establishment of new individuals in advance of extant treelines. Despite its popularity, no study has tested this hypothesis in a comprehensive fashion. In this experiment we attempted to answer whether there are enough viable seeds being dispersed beyond treeline for sexually mediated treeline advance, and what the implications of climate change might be on these processes.
We established 30 plots across two aspects (north vs. south) and three elevational habitats (forest, treeline and tundra) in a white spruce (Picea glauca) boreal forest-alpine tundra ecotone in southwest Yukon, Canada. In each plot, tree characteristics, seed production, and predispersal damage were measured. Additionally, eight dispersal trays were positioned in each plot to measure seed rain, and germination trials with and without predation exclosures were constructed in a subset of plots to quantify dispersal and germination success.
Results were highly variable both temporally and spatially. In 2014, a mast year, 69% of adult trees produced cones compared to 0.4% in the following year. Higher density of trees in forest plots compared to treeline and tundra resulted in greater seed production at lower elevations. Across all plots, 88% of seeds were damaged before dispersal or were not viable. Treeline plots had significantly greater predispersal damage. Seed rain was greater in south-facing plots than north-facing plots. Less than 2% of seeds produced on the landscape were dispersed in tundra plots, located 50m above treeline. There was a net movement of seeds from the north-facing slope to the south at our study site, likely due to prevailing winds during the dispersal period. Germination counts were more than double on north-facing slopes and one-third higher inside exclosures. Cumulatively, the results provide some evidence for the reproduction limitation hypothesis. Collectively, the high amount of predispersal damage and nonviable seeds, variability associated with dispersal and significant seed predation can functionally influence treeline dynamics. These findings suggest that global treeline distribution models, which rely largely on temperature, may not be entirely accurate for predicting treeline advance – at least at finer temporal scales. Many stochastic factors need to align temporally for successful advance, which is likely to result in a lag of many decades between the period of temperature amelioration and an increased number of trees beyond extant treelines.