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Oecologia. 2012 May;169(1):269-79. doi: 10.1007/s00442-011-2191-x. Epub 2011 Nov 12.

Phenotypic plasticity facilitates resistance to climate change in a highly variable environment.

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  • 1Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, Birmensdorf, Switzerland.


Increased summer drought will exacerbate the regeneration of many tree species at their lower latitudinal and altitudinal distribution limits. In vulnerable habitats, introduction of more drought-tolerant provenances or species is currently considered to accelerate tree species migration and facilitate forest persistence. Trade-offs between drought adaptation and growth plasticity might, however, limit the effectiveness of assisted migration, especially if introductions focus on provenances or species from different climatic regions. We tested in a common garden experiment the performance of Pinus sylvestris seedlings from the continental Central Alps under increased temperatures and extended spring and/or summer drought, and compared seedling emergence, survival and biomass allocation to that of P. sylvestris and closely related Pinus nigra from a Mediterranean seed source. Soil heating had only minor effects on seedling performance but high spring precipitation doubled the number of continental P. sylvestris seedlings present after the summer drought. At the same time, twice as many seedlings of the Mediterranean than the continental P. sylvestris provenance were present, which was due to both higher emergence and lower mortality under dry conditions. Both P. sylvestris provenances allocated similar amounts of biomass to roots when grown under low summer precipitation. Mediterranean seedlings, however, revealed lower phenotypic plasticity than continental seedlings under high precipitation, which might limit their competitive ability in continental Alpine forests in non-drought years. By contrast, high variability in the response of individual seedlings to summer drought indicates the potential of continental P. sylvestris provenances to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

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