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NICH Report Summary

Project ID: 678841
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NICH (Novel interactions and species’ responses to climate change)

Reporting period: 2016-07-01 to 2017-12-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

A great challenge facing ecologists today is predicting the responses of species, communities and ecosystems to global climate change. Progress will hinge on our ability to predict how responses are shaped by evolution and by changes to species interactions. As well as altering interactions among species that already co-occur in communities today, climate change is leading to the large-scale reshuffling of species distributions, giving rise to novel interactions among species that did not previously co-occur. However, the ecological and evolutionary consequences of novel interactions remain poorly understood. The NICH project combines cutting-edge experiments and process-based modeling to address three questions about the impact of novel competitors on responses to climate change in alpine plant communities:

(1) How will novel interactions impact species’ responses to climate change? We are testing the ecological consequences of novel competitors for population persistence, and the potential for longer-term evolutionary responses, by transplanting whole plant communities across elevation gradients to simulate future competitive scenarios faced by focal alpine plants.

(2) Do species traits predict the outcome of novel interactions? A mechanistic understanding of competitive effects is essential to predict impacts of novel interactions. We are testing how climate affects the outcome of competition among pairs of species planted along an elevation climate gradient, and whether these effects can be predicted using species’ functional traits.

(3) What are the implications of novel competitive interactions for species’ ranges dynamics under climate change? We will use process-based species distribution models, parameterized with our experimental data, to explore the consequences of changing competitive interactions for range dynamics under climate change.

This project will advance our understanding of species’ responses to climate change, and develop approaches that can be applied to a diversity of other ecological settings. It also tackles fundamental questions in ecology, shedding light on the mechanisms shaping species distributions. By linking experimental community ecology and biogeography, the project pushes the limits of our ability to predict the dynamics of complex ecological systems.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The first phase of the project has been dedicated to establishing the field experiments to address Questions 1 and 2. To tackle Question 1, we established a whole-community transplant experiment at four sites along an elevation gradient in the western Swiss Alps. In this experiment, focal alpine plants interact with either their current alpine plant community or with plant communities from lower elevations, and we are characterizing their ecological and evolutionary responses to changing competitor identities as climate warms. Preliminary results from the first season of data collection indicate variable responses across species in their responses to changing climatic and competitive environments. We complemented this experiment with a controlled glasshouse experiment to investigate the effects of changing plant-soil biota interactions in these sites, and their influence on the coexistence of novel plant competitors. Our results revealed positive effects of low elevation soil biota on plant performance, but with only one exception the soil biota effects did not alter model predictions for the qualitative outcome of competition between high and low elevation plant species (Cardinaux & Alexander, in review). In collaboration with colleagues at EPFL and ETH Zurich we also extended the field experiment to investigate consequences of novel interactions for ecosystem processes. Our preliminary results suggest that the establishment of lowland species modifies carbon fluxes in alpine communities experiencing climate warming (Walker et al., in prep).

We set-up a second large-scale field experiment to address Question 2. In this experiment we compete plant species from high and low elevation in pairwise combinations in three sites at low, intermediate and high elevation. We will test the climate-dependence of competitive outcomes, and the extent to which these interactions can be predicted by species’ functional traits. Data collection will commence in 2018.

The implications of novel interactions arising through asynchronous migrations following climate change, particularly for our ability to forecast ecological responses to climate change, are not yet widely recognized. We published an article that lays-out the need for experiments that quantify outcomes of novel interactions in ways that can inform species distribution models, and outlines a research agenda to achieve this goal (Alexander et al. 2016). Furthermore, to provide a baseline for our empirical research it was crucial to first synthesise current knowledge about the mechanisms affecting disequilibrium range dynamics in mountain ecosystems. We published a review paper on this topic (Alexander et al. 2018), where we also developed a mechanistic community model of disequilibrium range dynamics across elevation gradients, providing a baseline for the models that will be used to address Question 3.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

The two large-scale field experiments that we have established are innovative approaches that will advance our current understanding about the responses of species to novel interactions following climate change. They will also contribute substantially to our understanding of the factors controlling species’ distributions by providing so far missing experimental tests of hypotheses underlying range-limit theory, such as the existence of trade-offs between climate tolerance and competitive ability. The data arising from these experiments will help us to assess the ability of species traits to predict competitive outcomes among plants, and therefore how far we can generalize from these experiments to other plant communities. Using this information we will develop and parameterize mechanistic species distribution models for these plant species that account for novel competitive interactions, to provide improved predictions of climate change impacts on natural communities and ecosystems.
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