Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor's Name

Ken Feeley

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

J. Albert Uy

Second Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Third Advisor's Name

Steven F. Oberbauer

Third Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Fourth Advisor's Name

Hong Liu

Fourth Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Fifth Advisor's Name

John Withey

Fifth Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member


Life sciences, biology

Date of Defense



The elevational distributions of tropical treelines are thought to be determined by temperature, and are predicted to shift upslope in response to global warming. In contrast to this hypothesis, global-scale studies have shown that only half of all studied treelines are shifting upslope. Understanding how treelines will respond to climate change has important implications for global biodiversity, especially in the tropics, because tropical treelines generally represent the upper-elevation distribution limit of the hyper-diverse cloudforest ecosystem. In Chapter 1, I introduce the idea that grasslands found above tropical treelines may represent a potential grass ceiling which forest species cannot cross or invade. I use an extensive literature review to outline potential mechanisms which may be acting to stabilize treeline and prevent forest expansion into high-elevation grasslands. In Chapters 2-4, I begin to explore these potential mechanisms through the use of observational and experimental methods. In Chapter 2, I show that there are significant numbers of seedlings occurring just outside of the treeline in the open grasslands and that seed rain is unlikely to limit seedling recruitment above treeline. I also show that microclimates outside of the closed-canopy cloudforest are highly variable and that mean temperatures are likely a poor explanation of tropical treeline elevations. In Chapter 3, I show that juvenile trees maintain freezing resistances similar to adults, but nighttime radiative cooling near the ground in the open grassland results in lower cold temperatures relative to the free atmosphere, exposing seedlings of some species growing above treeline to lethal frost events. In Chapter 4, I use a large-scale seedling transplant experiment to test the effects of mean temperature, absolute low temperature and shade on transplanted seedling survival. I find that increasing mean temperature negatively affects seedling survival of two treeline species while benefiting another. In addition, low temperature extremes and the presence of shade also appear to be important factors affecting seedling survival above tropical treelines. This work demonstrates that mean temperature is a poor predictor of tropical treelines and that temperature extremes, especially low temperatures, and non-climatic variables should be included in predictions of current and future tropical treeline dynamics.



Included in

Biology Commons



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