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Complex demographic responses to contrasting climate drivers lead to divergent population trends across the range of a threatened alpine plant

December 7, 2021

Alpine plants are likely to be particularly vulnerable to climate change because of their restricted distributions and sensitivity to rapid environmental shifts occurring in high-elevation ecosystems. The well-studied Haleakalā silversword (‘āhinahina, Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum) already exhibits substantial climate-associated population decline, and offers the opportunity to understand the ecological and demographic mechanisms that underlie ongoing and predicted range shifts. We use nearly four decades of demographic monitoring for this threatened Hawaiian species, in combination with other biological, ecological and climate data to explore demographic responses across its entire range. We construct and independently validate population models for two elevation zones representing the species’ lower trailing and higher stable regions. Differences in population growth rate (lambda) between trailing and stable regions were influenced most strongly by lower survival of juvenile and small adult size classes, as well as by lower recruitment and lower survival of seedlings and large adults in the trailing region. Furthermore, seed production appears to have decreased from the 1980’s to present in the trailing region, and is now significantly less than in the stable region. Lambda and several underlying vital rates were significantly associated with wetter dry season conditions in the lower trailing region, indicating water limitation. In the higher elevation stable region, in contrast, lambda and vital rates were associated with warmer air temperatures, indicating cold limitation. These contrasting demographic patterns and climate dependencies lead to a high probability of extinction over the next century in the lower region, where most plants occur, but zero probability of the same in the higher region, according to stochastic population projections. Drier future scenarios further increase the probability of extinction at low elevations. The combined results illustrate the complexity in the demographic response and future viability that can occur across the range of a single species.