Snowmelt timing regulates community composition, phenology, and physiological performance of alpine plants

Frontiers in Plant Science
By: , and 



The spatial patterning of alpine plant communities is strongly influenced by the variation in physical factors such as temperature and moisture, which are strongly affected by snow depth and snowmelt patterns. Earlier snowmelt timing and greater soil-moisture limitations may favor wide-ranging species adapted to a broader set of ecohydrological conditions than alpine-restricted species. We asked how plant community composition, phenology, plant water relations, and photosynthetic gas exchange of alpine-restricted and wide-ranging species differ in their responses to a ca. 40-day snowmelt gradient in the Colorado Rocky Mountains (Lewisia pygmaeaSibbaldia procumbens, and Hymenoxys grandiflora were alpine-restricted and Artemisia scopulorumCarex rupestris, and Geum rossii were wide-ranging species). As hypothesized, species richness and foliar cover increased with earlier snowmelt, due to a greater abundance of wide-ranging species present in earlier melting plots. Flowering initiation occurred earlier with earlier snowmelt for 12 out of 19 species analyzed, while flowering duration was shortened with later snowmelt for six species (all but one were wide-ranging species). We observed >50% declines in net photosynthesis from July to September as soil moisture and plant water potentials declined. Early-season stomatal conductance was higher in wide-ranging species, indicating a more competitive strategy for water acquisition when soil moisture is high. Even so, there were no associated differences in photosynthesis or transpiration, suggesting no strong differences between these groups in physiology. Our findings reveal that plant species with different ranges (alpine-restricted vs. wide-ranging) could have differential phenological and physiological responses to snowmelt timing and associated soil moisture dry-down, and that alpine-restricted species’ performance is more sensitive to snowmelt. As a result, alpine-restricted species may serve as better indicator species than their wide-ranging heterospecifics. Overall, alpine community composition and peak % cover are strongly structured by spatio-temporal patterns in snowmelt timing. Thus, near-term, community-wide changes (or variation) in phenology and physiology in response to shifts in snowmelt timing or rates of soil dry down are likely to be contingent on the legacy of past climate on community structure.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Snowmelt timing regulates community composition, phenology, and physiological performance of alpine plants
Series title Frontiers in Plant Science
DOI 10.3389/fpls.2018.01140
Volume 9
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher Frontiers
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description Article 1140; 13 p.
First page 1
Last page 13