The inability of tropical cloud forest species to invade grasslands above treeline during climate change: potential explanations and consequences

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The upper elevational range edges of most tropical cloud forest tree species and hence the ‘treeline’ are thought to be determined primarily by temperatures. For this reason, the treeline ecotone between cloud forests and the overlying grasslands is generally predicted to shift upslope as species migrate to higher elevations in response to global warming. Here, we propose that other factors are preventing tropical trees from shifting or expanding their ranges to include high elevation areas currently under grassland, resulting in stationary treelines despite rising mean temperatures. The inability of cloud forest species to invade the grasslands, a phenomenon which we refer to as the ‘grass ceiling’ effect, poses a major threat to tropical biodiversity as it will greatly increase risk of extinctions and biotic attrition in diverse tropical cloud forests. In this review, we discuss some of the natural factors, as well as anthropogenic influences, that may prevent cloud forest tree species from expanding their ranges to higher elevations. In the absence of human disturbances, tropical treelines have historically shifted up- and down-slope with changes in temperature. Over time, increased human activity has limited forests to lower elevations (i.e. has depressed treelines), and often broken the equilibrium between species range limits and climate. Yet even in areas where anthropogenic influences are halted, cloud forests have not expanded to higher elevations. Despite the critical importance of understanding the distributional responses of tropical species to climate change, few studies have addressed the factors that influence treeline location and dynamics, severely hindering our ability to predict the fate of these diverse and important ecosystems.

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