Dwarf shrubs have generally increased in our study sites over the past 60 years. Their distribution is strongly shaped by the joint influence of the fine-scale topography, productivity, land use and micro-climate.
Question: Vegetation in the alpine and treeline ecotone faces changes in both climate and land use. Shrub encroachment is considered an effect of these changes, but it's still unclear how this effect is mediated by environmental heterogeneity. Our goal is to determine which environmental factors shape the fine-scale spatial distribution and temporal trends of alpine dwarf shrub. Location: Three sites in the Central Apennine, Italy. Methods: We used a comprehensive set of environmental factors across a broad temporal span to model, at a fine-scale, both (1) the current spatial distribution and (2) the change in shrub cover over the past 60 years. Results: Our results show that dwarf shrubs have generally increased in our study sites over the past 60 years, yet their distribution is strongly shaped by the joint influence of the fine-scale topography, productivity, land use and micro-climate. In particular, shrubs have been locally favored in areas with harsher alpine environmental constraints and stronger resource limitation. Instead, contrary to expectations, at this fine scale, warmer temperatures and the decline in grazing have not favored shrub encroachment. Conclusion: Dwarf shrubs appear as a stress-tolerant, pioneer vegetation that is currently distributed mainly over areas that are otherwise sparsely vegetated. It appears that shrubs exhibit poor competitive ability to invade grasslands and, though they have increased overall, they remain restricted to the least productive areas. Fine-scale environmental heterogeneity may strongly influence future responses of dwarf shrubs in changing alpine ecosystems.