Tree growth response along an elevational gradient: Climate or genetics?

Gregory M. King, Felix Gugerli, Patrick Fonti, David C. Frank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

86 Scopus citations


Environment and genetics combine to influence tree growth and should therefore be jointly considered when evaluating forest responses in a warming climate. Here, we combine dendroclimatology and population genetic approaches with the aim of attributing climatic influences on growth of European larch (Larix decidua) and Norway spruce (Picea abies). Increment cores and genomic DNA samples were collected from populations along a ~900-m elevational transect where the air temperature gradient encompasses a ~4 °C temperature difference. We found that low genetic differentiation among populations indicates gene flow is high, suggesting that migration rate is high enough to counteract the selective pressures of local environmental variation. We observed lower growth rates towards higher elevations and a transition from negative to positive correlations with growing season temperature upward along the elevational transect. With increasing elevation there was also a clear increase in the explained variance of growth due to summer temperatures. Comparisons between climate sensitivity patterns observed along this elevational transect with those from Larix and Picea sites distributed across the Alps reveal good agreement, and suggest that tree-ring width (TRW) variations are more climate-driven than genetics-driven at regional and larger scales. We conclude that elevational transects are an extremely valuable platform for understanding climatic-driven changes over time and can be especially powerful when working within an assessed genetic framework.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1587-1600
Number of pages14
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Alps
  • Climate impact
  • Dendrochronology
  • Forest productivity
  • Gene flow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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