Indexed on: 21 Aug '09Published on: 21 Aug '09Published in: Plant Ecology
The snow cover extent is an important factor for the structure and composition of arctic and alpine tundra communities. Over the last few decades, snowmelt in many arctic and alpine regions has advanced, causing the growing season to start earlier and last longer. In a field experiment in subarctic tundra in Interior Alaska, I manipulated the timing of snowmelt and measured the response in mortality, phenology, growth, and reproduction of the eight dominant plant species. I then tested whether the phenological development of these species was controlled by snowmelt date or by temperature (in particular growing degree days, GDD). In order to expand our understanding of plant sensitivity to snowmelt timing, I explored whether the response patterns can be generalized with regard to the temporal niche of each species. Differences in the phenology between treatments were only found for the first stages of the phenological development (=phenophases). The earlier the temporal niche (i.e., the sooner after snowmelt a species develops) the more its phenology was sensitive to snowmelt. Later phenophases were mostly controlled by GDD, especially in late-developing species. In no species did an earlier snowmelt and a longer growing season directly enhance plant fitness or fecundity, in spite of the changes in the timing of plant development. In conclusion, the temporal niche of a species’ phenological development could be a predictor of its response to snowmelt timing. However, only the first phenophases were susceptible to changes in snowmelt, and no short-term effects on plant fitness were found.