Skip to main content
Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2017

Elevation alters ecosystem properties across temperate treelines globally

Mayor, Jordan R.; Sanders, Nathan J.; Classen, Aimee T.; Bardgett, Richard D.; Clement, Jean-Christophe; Fajardo, Alex; Lavorel, Sandra; Sundqvist, Maja K.; Bahn, Michael; Chisholm, Chelsea; Cieraad, Ellen; Gedalof, Ze'ev; Grigulis, Karl; Kudo, Gaku; Oberski, Daniel L.; Wardle, David A.


Temperature is a primary driver of the distribution of biodiversity as well as of ecosystem boundaries(1,2). Declining temperature with increasing elevation in montane systems has long been recognized as a major factor shaping plant community biodiversity, metabolic processes, and ecosystem dynamics(3,4). Elevational gradients, as thermoclines, also enable prediction of long-term ecological responses to climate warming(5-7). One of the most striking manifestations of increasing elevation is the abrupt transitions from forest to treeless alpine tundra(8). However, whether there are globally consistent above-and belowground responses to these transitions remains an open question(4). To disentangle the direct and indirect effects of temperature on ecosystem properties, here we evaluate replicate treeline ecotones in seven temperate regions of the world. We find that declining temperatures with increasing elevation did not affect tree leaf nutrient concentrations, but did reduce ground-layer community-weighted plant nitrogen, leading to the strong stoichiometric convergence of ground-layer plant community nitrogen to phosphorus ratios across all regions. Further, elevation-driven changes in plant nutrients were associated with changes in soil organic matter content and quality (carbon to nitrogen ratios) and microbial properties. Combined, our identification of direct and indirect temperature controls over plant communities and soil properties in seven contrasting regions suggests that future warming may disrupt the functional properties of montane ecosystems, particularly where plant community reorganization outpaces treeline advance.

Published in

2017, volume: 542, number: 7639, pages: 91-107

Authors' information

Mayor, Jordan
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Ecology and Management
Sanders, Nathan J
University of Copenhagen
Classen, Aimée T
Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL)
Bardgett, Richard D.
University of Manchester
Clément, Jean-Christophe
Université Savoie Mont Blanc
Fajardo, Alex
Southern University of Chile (UACh)
Lavorel, Sandra
Université Grenoble Alpes
Umeå University
Bahn, Michael
University of Innsbruck
Chisholm, Chelsea
University of Copenhagen
Cieraad, Ellen
Leiden University
Gedalof, Ze'ev
University of Guelph
Grigulis, Karl
Université Grenoble Alpes
Kudo, Gaku
Hokkaido University
Oberski, Daniel L
Utrecht University
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Ecology and Management

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG13 Climate action

UKÄ Subject classification

Forest Science

Publication Identifiers


URI (permanent link to this page)