Climate-competition tradeoffs shape the range limits of European beech and Norway spruce along elevational gradients across the Carpathian Mountains

Jonathan Schurman, Pavel Janda, Myloš Rydval, Martin Mikolaš, Miroslav Svoboda, Flurin Babst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Basic ecological theory suggests that a tradeoff between competitiveness and stress tolerance dictates species range limits at regional extents. However, empirical support for this key theory remains deficient because the necessary spatial and temporal coverage and scalability of field observations has rarely been achieved. We harnessed an extensive dendroecological network (> 22 000 tree-ring samples from 816 forest inventory plots) to disentangle competition-limited from climate-limited growth in both overstory and understory trees. Growth synchrony among trees thereby served as an integral metric of climate sensitivity, an approach that we justify in supplementary analyses of growth responses to temperature, precipitation, and the standardized precipitation-evapotranspiration index. Sampling plots were arranged along elevational climate and vegetation gradients throughout the Carpathian Mountains, ranging from mixed-species lowland forests to coniferous forests at high elevations. With mixed-effect modelling, we also identified non-climatic factors (stand characteristics, species diversity, and disturbance history) that modulate spatial patterns in the growth rate and synchrony of European beech Fagus sylvatica and Norway spruce Picea abies. Beech exhibited reduced growth and increased climate sensitivity towards higher elevations but performed better when species diversity was higher. The growth of spruce increased towards its lower range boundary, but understory cohorts grew poorly under interspecific competition. Overall, climate sensitivity was lower in more productive stands with benign climatic conditions and in recently disturbed sites with reduced stand density. These contrasting performances at mid-elevations where the two species overlap (900–1300 m a.s.l.) reflect their evolutionary history, which enables them to be competitive (beech) or cold-stress tolerant (spruce). This history will affect interactions between the two species under climate warming and shape macroecological patterns in the Carpathian ecoregion and likely other parts of Europe. Our findings point to a growing advantage of competitively stronger species in montane and subalpine vegetation zones.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere06715
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2024


  • climate change
  • competition
  • forest productivity
  • growth synchrony
  • species distribution
  • stress-tradeoff hypothesis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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