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Research article2024Peer reviewedOpen access

Climate Change Responses of High-Elevation Polylepis Forests

Bedoya-Canas, Larry E.; Lopez-Hernandez, Felipe; Cortes, Andres J.


The high mountain forests on Earth are characterized by sharp environmental heterogeneity, high species endemism, and unique phenotypic adaptations. Yet, global warming is jeopardizing this ecosystem as no other as some forests may have nowhere to go beyond the mountain's summits. One of the most human-endangered high-elevation ecosystems is the Polylepis forest. Despite its vulnerability, forecasting climate reactions in this distinctive high mountain forest type remains a formidable challenge. Therefore, in this study, we modeled climate change responses of high-elevation allopatric Polylepis sericea and P. quadrijuga (Rosaceae) in the northern Andes. The analysis took into account VIF-prioritized bioclimatic variables for near-to-present and future (2081-2100 MPI-ESM1-2-HR) conditions. Model selection was carried out following the AUC scores of 12 MaxEnt and six machine learning algorithms. Predictive power reached 0.97 for MaxEnt's model fc.H_rm.1 (H-1). Results indicate a moderate vulnerability of P. sericea, with a 29% loss of area in the trailing edge, due to climate change for the period 2081-2100. On the other hand, P. quadrijuga is likely to experience even larger distribution losses, up to 99%, for the same period. The findings of this study suggest that P. quadrijuga, as compared to P. sericea, exhibits a restricted ability to maintain the corresponding habitat requirements in the face of climatic change. Higher niche specialization of P. quadrijuga in the environmentally heterogeneous Eastern Cordillera contrasts with the more generalist nature of P. sericea in the topographically less complex Central Cordillera. In addition to climate change, this trend may be exacerbated by the detrimental effects of agriculture, mining, and an expanding rural population, which represent significant human-driven pressures yet to be modeled in the northern Andean highlands. Yet, based on previous studies, the historical population dynamics during the past glacial cycles suggests that range shifts could play a more significant role at deeper time scales than previously forecasted in the species' reaction to climate change. Additionally, Polylepis forests may be able to endure at the current locations via local adaptation and plasticity, major drivers of the phenotypic variation in long-lived trees, counteracting the vulnerability scenario under a niche conservatism hypothesis. Ultimately, the modeling procedure employed in this study provides insights into the potential effects of climate change on Polylepis forests 70 years from now. Oncoming studies may consider alternative responses inherent to the gene pool of the species and the interaction with edaphic and biotic agents. We advocate for the application of comparable estimations in other high-elevation tree communities found at the tree line.


P. sericea; P. quadrijuga; niche conservatism; species range shifts; migration potential; in situ adaptation; sub-Paramo; Neotropics; northern Andes; species distribution model; extinction at the trailing edge; uncolonized leading edge

Published in

2024, Volume: 15, number: 5, article number: 811
Publisher: MDPI

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    Forest Science

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