Aim: Climate warming is expected to drive upward and poleward shifts at the leading edge of tree species ranges. Disturbance has the potential to accelerate these shifts by altering biotic and abiotic conditions, though this potential is likely to vary by disturbance type. In this study, we assessed whether recent wildfires and spruce beetle outbreaks promoted upward range expansion of trembling aspen.
Location: The San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, USA (37°34′–37°50′N, 106°49′–107°21′W).
Taxon: Populus tremuloides.
Methods: We used aerial imagery to determine the upper elevational limit of adult aspen and conducted seedling surveys at and above this upper limit in burned and unburned areas, which had already incurred high canopy mortality due to spruce bark beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) outbreaks. We compared characteristics of burned versus unburned bark beetle-killed sites and assessed microsite conditions related to aspen seedling establishment using generalized linear models and interaction indices.
Results: Aspen seedling establishment occurred upslope of its previous range within burns, but not in unburned areas, despite severe beetle-driven canopy mortality across all sites before the fire. Aspen seedling establishment was associated more with the light and mineral soil created by fire than the presence of nearby seed sources. Aspen seedlings were associated with nurse objects such as logs and rocks at the highest elevations, where these objects may ameliorate a range of stressors associated with the high elevation range boundary.
Main conclusions: Not all disturbance types are equal in promoting tree species migrations at the leading edge. Range shifts can be highly localized, and microsites are important for driving local range expansions in transitional environments. The mosaic of future disturbances across the landscape will drive forest compositional shifts, depending on the disturbance types and the species they promote.