Background and Aims
The most plausible explanation for treeline formation so far is provided by the growth limitation hypothesis (GLH), which proposes that carbon sinks are more restricted by low temperatures than by carbon sources. Evidence supporting the GLH has been strong in evergreen, but less and weaker in deciduous treeline species. Here a test is made of the GLH in deciduous–evergreen mixed species forests across elevational gradients, with the hypothesis that deciduous treeline species show a different carbon storage trend from that shown by evergreen species across elevations.
Tree growth and concentrations of non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) in foliage, branch sapwood and stem sapwood tissues were measured at four elevations in six deciduous–evergreen treeline ecotones (including treeline) in the southern Andes of Chile (40°S, Nothofagus pumilio and Nothofagus betuloides; 46°S, Nothofagus pumilio and Pinus sylvestris) and in the Swiss Alps (46°N, Larix decidua and Pinus cembra).
Tree growth (basal area increment) decreased with elevation for all species. Regardless of foliar habit, NSCs did not deplete across elevations, indicating no shortage of carbon storage in any of the investigated tissues. Rather, NSCs increased significantly with elevation in leaves (P < 0·001) and branch sapwood (P = 0·012) tissues. Deciduous species showed significantly higher NSCs than evergreens for all tissues; on average, the former had 11 % (leaves), 158 % (branch) and 103 % (sapwood) significantly (P < 0·001) higher NSCs than the latter. Finally, deciduous species had higher NSC (particularly starch) increases with elevation than evergreens for stem sapwood, but the opposite was true for leaves and branch sapwood.
Considering the observed decrease in tree growth and increase in NSCs with elevation, it is concluded that both deciduous and evergreen treeline species are sink limited when faced with decreasing temperatures. Despite the overall higher requirements of deciduous tree species for carbon storage, no indication was found of carbon limitation in deciduous species in the alpine treeline ecotone.