Data from: Positive shrub-tree interactions facilitate woody encroachment in boreal peatlands
Holmgren, M. ; Lin, C.Y. ; Murillo, J.E. ; Nieuwenhuis, A. ; Penninkhof, J.M. ; Sanders, N. ; Bart, T. van; Veen, H. van; Vasander, H. ; Vollebregt, M.E. ; Limpens, J. - \ 2015
boreal forests - climate change - competition - critical transition - ecosystem shift - peatbog - positive interactions - resilience - tree seedling establishment
Boreal ecosystems are warming roughly twice as fast as the global average, resulting in woody expansion that could further speed up the climate warming. Boreal peatbogs are waterlogged systems that store more than 30% of the global soil carbon. Facilitative effects of shrubs and trees on the establishment of new individuals could increase tree cover with profound consequences for the structure and functioning of boreal peatbogs, carbon sequestration and climate. We conducted two field experiments in boreal peatbogs to assess the mechanisms that explain tree seedling recruitment and to estimate the strength of positive feedbacks between shrubs and trees. We planted seeds and seedlings of Pinus sylvestris in microsites with contrasting water-tables and woody cover and manipulated both shrub canopy and root competition. We monitored seedling emergence, growth and survival for up to four growing seasons and assessed how seedling responses related to abiotic and biotic conditions. We found that tree recruitment is more successful in drier topographical microsites with deeper water-tables. On these hummocks, shrubs have both positive and negative effects on tree seedling establishment. Shrub cover improved tree seedling condition, growth and survival during the warmest growing season. In turn, higher tree basal area correlates positively with soil nutrient availability, shrub biomass and abundance of tree juveniles. Synthesis. Our results suggest that shrubs facilitate tree colonization of peatbogs which further increases shrub growth. These facilitative effects seem to be stronger under warmer conditions suggesting that a higher frequency of warmer and dry summers may lead to stronger positive interactions between shrubs and trees that could eventually facilitate a shift from moss to tree-dominated systems.
Seperating the role of biotic interactions and climate in determining adaptive response of plants to climate change
Tomiolo, S. ; Putten, W.H. van der; Tielbörger, K. - \ 2015
Ecology 96 (2015)5. - ISSN 0012-9658 - p. 1298 - 1308.
local adaptation - environmental gradients - positive interactions - species interactions - soil feedback - ecological responses - aridity gradient - global change - evolutionary - communities
Altered rainfall regimes will greatly affect the response of plant species to climate change. However, little is known about how direct effects of changing precipitation on plant performance may depend on other abiotic factors and biotic interactions. We used reciprocal transplants between climatically very different sites with simultaneous manipulation of soil, plant population origin, and neighbor conditions to evaluate local adaptation and possible adaptive response of four Eastern Mediterranean annual plant species to climate change. The effect of site on plant performance was negligible, but soil origin had a strong effect on fecundity, most likely due to differential water retaining ability. Competition by neighbors strongly reduced fitness. We separated the effects of the abiotic and biotic soil properties on plant performance by repeating the field experiment in a greenhouse under homogenous environmental conditions and including a soil biota manipulation treatment. As in the field, plant performance differed among soil origins and neighbor treatments. Moreover, we found plant species-specific responses to soil biota that may be best explained by the differential sensitivity to negative and positive soil biota effects. Overall, under the conditions of our experiment with two contrasting sites, biotic interactions had a strong effect on plant fitness that interacted with and eventually overrode climate. Because climate and biotic interactions covary, reciprocal transplants and climate gradient studies should consider soil biotic interactions and abiotic conditions when evaluating climate change effects on plant performance.
Can we infer plant facilitation from remote sensing? A test across global drylands
Xu, C. ; Holmgren, M. ; Nes, E.H. van; Maestre, F.T. ; Soliveres, S. ; Berdugo, M. ; Kefi, S. ; Marquet, P.A. ; Abades, S. ; Scheffer, M. - \ 2015
Ecological Applications 25 (2015)6. - ISSN 1051-0761 - p. 1456 - 1462.
positive interactions - vegetation patterns - spatial-patterns - ecosystems - desertification - distributions - environments - competition - dynamics - ecology
Facilitation is a major force shaping the structure and diversity of plant communities in terrestrial ecosystems. Detecting positive plant-plant interactions relies on the combination of field experimentation and the demonstration of spatial association between neighboring plants. This has often restricted the study of facilitation to particular sites, limiting the development of systematic assessments of facilitation over regional and global scales. Here we explore whether the frequency of plant spatial associations detected from high-resolution remotely-sensed images can be used to infer plant facilitation at the community level in drylands around the globe. We correlated the information from remotely-sensed images freely available through Google EarthTM with detailed field assessments, and used a simple individual-based model to generate patch-size distributions using different assumptions about the type and strength of plant-plant interactions. Most of the patterns found from the remotely-sensed images were more right-skewed than the patterns from the null model simulating a random distribution. This suggests that the plants in the studied drylands show stronger spatial clustering than expected by chance. We found that positive plant co-occurrence, as measured in the field, was significantly related to the skewness of vegetation patch-size distribution measured using Google EarthTM images. Our findings suggest that the relative frequency of facilitation may be inferred from spatial pattern signals measured from remotely-sensed images, since facilitation often determines positive co-occurrence among neighboring plants. They pave the road for a systematic global assessment of the role of facilitation in terrestrial ecosystems.
Drought and grazing combined: Contrasting shifts in plant interactions at species pair and community level
Verwijmeren, M. ; Rietkerk, M. ; Bautista, S. ; Garcia Mayor, A.P. ; Wassen, M.J. ; Smit, C. - \ 2014
Journal of Arid Environments 111 (2014). - ISSN 0140-1963 - p. 53 - 60.
stress-gradient hypothesis - positive interactions - nurse plants - microhabitat amelioration - spatial-patterns - arid ecosystems - abiotic stress - semiarid plant - tree saplings - facilitation
The combined effects of drought stress and grazing pressure on shaping plant plant interactions are still poorly understood, while this combination is common in arid ecosystems. In this study we assessed the relative effect of grazing pressure and slope aspect (drought stress) on vegetation cover and soil functioning in semi-arid Mediterranean-grassland shrublands in southeastern Spain. Moreover, we linked these two stress factors to plant co-occurrence patterns at species-pair and community levels, by performing C-score analyses. Vegetation cover and soil functioning decreased with higher grazing pressure and more south-facing (drier) slopes. At the community level, plants at south-facing slopes were negatively associated at no grazing but positively associated at low grazing pressure and randomly associated at high grazing pressure. At north-facing slopes, grazing did not result in a shift in the direction of the association. In contrast, analysis of pairwise species co-occurrence patterns showed that the dominant species Stipa tenacissima and Anthyllis cytisoides shifted from excluding each other to co-occurring with increasing grazing pressure at north-facing slopes. Our findings highlight that for improved understanding of plant interactions along stress gradients, interactions between species pairs and interactions at the community level should be assessed, as these may reveal contrasting results. (C) 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Testing the stress gradient hypothesis in herbivore communities: facilitation peaks at intermediate nutrient levels
Bakker, E.S. ; Dobrescu, I. ; Straile, D. ; Holmgren, M. - \ 2013
Ecology 94 (2013)8. - ISSN 0012-9658 - p. 1776 - 1784.
fresh-water ecosystems - positive interactions - acentria-ephemerella - biotic interactions - submersed macrophytes - plant interactions - species-diversity - abiotic stress - prairie dogs - competition
The role of positive interactions in structuring plant and animal communities is increasingly recognized, but the generality of current theoretical models has remained practically unexplored in animal communities. The stress gradient hypothesis predicts a linear increase in the intensity of facilitation as environmental conditions become increasingly stressful, whereas other theoretical models predict a maximum at intermediate environmental stress. We tested how competition and facilitation between herbivores change over a manipulated gradient of nutrient availability. We studied the effect of grazing by pond snails (Lymnaea stagnalis L.) as bulk grazers on aquatic caterpillars (Acentria ephemerella Denis and Schiffermüller) as small specialist grazers along an experimental gradient of environmental nutrient concentration. Higher nutrient levels increased overall total plant biomass but induced a shift toward dominance of filamentous algae at the expense of macrophytes. Facilitation of caterpillars by snail presence peaked at intermediate nutrient levels. Both caterpillar biomass and caterpillar grazing on macrophytes were highest at intermediate nutrient levels. Snails facilitated caterpillars possibly by removing filamentous algae and increasing access to the macrophyte resource, whereas they did not affect macrophyte biomass or C¿:¿nutrient ratios, a measure of food quality. We conclude that competition and facilitation in herbivore communities change along nutrient availability gradients that affect plant biomass and community composition. Understanding how interspecific interactions may change in strength and direction along environmental gradients is important to predict how the diversity and structure of communities may respond to the introduction or removal of herbivore species in ecosystems.
Nucleated regeneration of semiarid sclerophyllous forests close to remnant vegetation
Fuentes-Castillo, T. ; Miranda, A. ; Rivera-Hutinel, A. ; Smith-Ramirez, C. ; Holmgren, M. - \ 2012
Forest Ecology and Management 274 (2012). - ISSN 0378-1127 - p. 38 - 47.
stress-gradient hypothesis - arid ecosystems - central chile - mediterranean vegetation - spatial autocorrelation - seedling establishment - positive interactions - tree establishment - plant-communities - atacama desert
Natural regeneration of mediterranean plant communities has proved difficult in all continents. In this paper we assess whether regeneration of sclerophyllous forests shows nucleated patterns indicative of a positive effect of vegetation remnants at the landscape level and compare the regeneration patterns between sites with distinctive climate conditions. We studied the spatial patterns of vegetation change during 52 years in central Chile using remotely-sensed images to test the predictions that (1) regeneration of sclerophyllous vegetation expands from patches of remnant vegetation; and (2) regeneration is more dependent on remnant vegetation in drier sites. Our results show that the regeneration of the sclerophyllous vegetation in central Chile is a slow process that may be possible under certain conditions. We found that the fraction of regenerated vegetation increases with the proximity to remnant sclerophyllous forest in an aggregated pattern. Especially in drier sites, vegetation remnants have a facilitative role on the regeneration of mediterranean-type ecosystems. These results have important implications for the management and conservation of these ecosystems
Shrub facilitation increases plant diversity along an arid scrubland-temperate rainforest boundary in South America
Zonneveld, M.J. van; Gutierrez, J.R. ; Holmgren, M. - \ 2012
Journal of Vegetation Science 23 (2012)3. - ISSN 1100-9233 - p. 541 - 551.
stress-gradient hypothesis - positive interactions - herbivore pressure - tree establishment - atacama desert - coastal chile - nurse plants - communities - regeneration - underneath
Theoretical models predict nurse plant facilitation enhances species richness by ameliorating stressful environmental conditions and expanding distributional ranges of stress-intolerant species into harsh environments. We studied the role of nurse facilitation on the recruitment of perennial plants along an arid scrubland–temperate rain forest boundary to test the following predictions: (1) nurse shrub canopy increases seedling abundance and species richness along the rain forest–scrubland boundary; (2) scrubland species are less dependent on facilitative interactions than temperate rain forest species, especially at the moister, upper end of the gradient.
Non-linear effects of drought under shade: reconciling physiological and ecological models in plant communities
Holmgren, M. ; Gomez-Aparicio, L. ; Quero, J.L. ; Valladares, F. - \ 2012
Oecologia 169 (2012)2. - ISSN 0029-8549 - p. 293 - 305.
stress-gradient hypothesis - oak quercus-suber - seedling establishment - positive interactions - biomass allocation - semiarid woodland - woody seedlings - water relations - summer drought - abiotic stress
The combined effects of shade and drought on plant performance and the implications for species interactions are highly debated in plant ecology. Empirical evidence for positive and negative effects of shade on the performance of plants under dry conditions supports two contrasting theoretical models about the role of shade under dry conditions: the trade-off and the facilitation hypotheses. We performed a meta-analysis of field and greenhouse studies evaluating the effects of drought at two or more irradiance levels on nine response variables describing plant physiological condition, growth, and survival. We explored differences in plant response across plant functional types, ecosystem types and methodological approaches. The data were best fit using quadratic models indicating a humped-back shape response to drought along an irradiance gradient for survival, whole plant biomass, maximum photosynthetic capacity, stomatal conductance and maximal photochemical efficiency. Drought effects were ameliorated at intermediate irradiance, becoming more severe at higher or lower light levels. This general pattern was maintained when controlling for potential variations in the strength of the drought treatment among light levels. Our quantitative meta-analysis indicates that dense shade ameliorates drought especially among drought-intolerant and shade-tolerant species. Wet tropical species showed larger negative effects of drought with increasing irradiance than semiarid and cold temperate species. Non-linear responses to irradiance were stronger under field conditions than under controlled greenhouse conditions. Non-linear responses to drought along the irradiance gradient reconciliate opposing views in plant ecology, indicating that facilitation is more likely within certain range of environmental conditions, fading under deep shade, especially for drought-tolerant species.
The spatial pattern of grasses in relation to tree effects in an arid savannah community: Inferring the relative importance of canopy and root effect
Xu, C. ; Liu, M.S. ; Zhang, M. ; Chen, B. ; Huang, Z. ; Uriankhai, T. ; Sheng, S. - \ 2011
Journal of Arid Environments 75 (2011)10. - ISSN 0140-1963 - p. 953 - 959.
below-ground competition - positive interactions - plant-communities - soil-water - facilitation - distributions - ecosystems - woody - productivity - understorey
Both aboveground and belowground processes play important roles in tree-grass interactions in savannas. Little consideration has been given to within-site heterogeneity in the strengths of co-occurring canopy and root effects of trees on grasses in savanna communities. Here, we attempted to correlate the spatial pattern of grass morphological traits with the strengths of canopy and root effects. The results from a spatial analysis suggested that the grass traits had lower variability within the operating domain of the root effect than within that of the canopy effect in sub-canopy areas; in contrast, the operating domain of the root effect presented higher variability of grass traits than that of the canopy effect in inter-canopy areas. Combined with root investigations on vertical distribution patterns, these results suggested that the root effect appeared to outweigh the canopy effect in the sub-canopy areas, where apparent vertical root separation between trees and grasses was shown; while the canopy effect could outweigh the root effect in the inter-canopy areas, where root separation was not observed. This study could provide correlative information on the relative importance of canopy and root effects, and has some useful implications on within-site heterogeneity in terms of aboveground and belowground components in savannas.
The ecological and evolutionary implications of merging different types of networks
Fontaine, C. ; Guimaraes, P.R. ; Kéfi, S. ; Loeuille, N. ; Memmott, J. ; Putten, W.H. van der; Veen, F.J. ; Thébault, E. - \ 2011
Ecology Letters 14 (2011)11. - ISSN 1461-023X - p. 1170 - 1181.
food-web structure - animal mutualistic networks - positive interactions - plant-communities - phylogenetic constraints - species extinctions - stability - pollination - coevolution - ecosystems
Interactions among species drive the ecological and evolutionary processes in ecological communities. These interactions are effectively key components of biodiversity. Studies that use a network approach to study the structure and dynamics of communities of interacting species have revealed many patterns and associated processes. Historically these studies were restricted to trophic interactions, although network approaches are now used to study a wide range of interactions, including for example the reproductive mutualisms. However, each interaction type remains studied largely in isolation from others. Merging the various interaction types within a single integrative framework is necessary if we want to further our understanding of the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of communities. Dividing the networks up is a methodological convenience as in the field the networks occur together in space and time and will be linked by shared species. Herein, we outline a conceptual framework for studying networks composed of more than one type of interaction, highlighting key questions and research areas that would benefit from their study
Strong facilitation in mild environments: the stress gradient hypothesis revisited
Holmgren, M. ; Scheffer, M. - \ 2010
Journal of Ecology 98 (2010)6. - ISSN 0022-0477 - p. 1269 - 1275.
plant-plant interactions - positive interactions - abiotic stress - arid environments - nurse plants - competition - communities - shrubs - establishment - metaanalysis
1. The idea that the role of facilitative interactions increases as environmental conditions become more stressful has become a ruling paradigm in ecology. Here, we review three reasons why positive interactions may actually be more prominent than generally thought under moderately stressful rather than under extreme conditions. 2. First, there is evidence that in some communities the net effect of amelioration of shortage of a limiting resource, such as water under the canopy of nurse plants, may be beneficial under moderate conditions whereas it can be overruled by increased competition for the same resource in very harsh environments. 3. Secondly, we show that even in situations where the relative role of facilitation increases monotonically with stress, the absolute effect should as a rule be largest at intermediately stressful conditions. This is because under the harshest conditions, facilitative amelioration of conditions is insufficient to allow growth altogether. Therefore, while facilitation will expand the range of conditions where an organism may occur, the largest absolute effects on biomass will always occur under less stressful conditions. 4. A third reason why facilitation may be more important under moderate conditions than previously thought is that in any ecosystem, the suite of organisms is adapted to local conditions. This implies that even under conditions that appear benign, facilitation may play an unexpectedly large role as organisms are simply more sensitive than those found under harsher overall conditions. 5. Synthesis. We argue that while facilitation will extend the range of conditions where an organism can occur, it should also boost performance of the species well into the more moderate range of conditions. Broadening our search image for facilitative effects towards milder environments will reveal wider than expected prevalence of positive interactions and their effects on stability and diversity in nature.
Ecosystem engineering and biodiversity in coastal sediments: posing hypotheses
Bouma, T.J. ; Olenin, S. ; Reise, K. ; Ysebaert, T. - \ 2009
Helgolander Marine Research 63 (2009)1. - ISSN 1438-387X - p. 95 - 106.
seagrass beds - musculista-senhousia - habitat modification - species-diversity - wadden sea - mussel bed - structural complexity - positive interactions - biological invasions - introduced seaweed
Coastal sediments in sheltered temperate locations are strongly modified by ecosystem engineering species such as marsh plants, seagrass, and algae as well as by epibenthic and endobenthic invertebrates. These ecosystem engineers are shaping the coastal sea and landscape, control particulate and dissolved material fluxes between the land and sea, and between the benthos and the passing water or air. Above all, habitat engineering exerts facilitating and inhibiting effects on biodiversity. Despite a strongly growing interest in the functional role of ecosystem engineering over the recent years, compared to food web analyses, the conceptual understanding of engineering-mediated species interactions is still in its infancy. In the present paper, we provide a concise overview on current insights and propose two hypotheses on the general mechanisms by which ecosystem engineering may affect biodiversity in coastal sediments. We hypothesise that autogenic and allogenic ecosystem engineers have inverse effects on epibenthic and endobenthic biodiversity in coastal sediments. The primarily autogenic structures of the epibenthos achieve high diversity at the expense of endobenthos, whilst allogenic sediment reworking by infauna may facilitate other infauna and inhibits epibenthos. On a larger scale, these antagonistic processes generate patchiness and habitat diversity. Due to such interaction, anthropogenic influences can strongly modify the engineering community by removing autogenic ecosystem engineers through coastal engineering or bottom trawling. Another source of anthropogenic influences comes from introducing invasive engineers, from which the impact is often hard to predict. We hypothesise that the local biodiversity effects of invasive ecosystem engineers will depend on the engineering strength of the invasive species, with engineering strength defined as the number of habitats it can invade and the extent of modification. At a larger scale of an entire shore, biodiversity need not be decreased by invasive engineers and may even increase. On a global scale, invasive engineers may cause shore biota to converge, especially visually due to the presence of epibenthic structures.
Tree Regeneration in Church Forests of Ethiopia: Effects of Microsites and Management
Wassie Eshete, A. ; Sterck, F.J. ; Teketay, D. ; Bongers, F. - \ 2009
Biotropica 41 (2009)1. - ISSN 0006-3606 - p. 110 - 119.
tropical dry forest - alpine plant-communities - positive interactions - seedling establishment - natural regeneration - afromontane forests - juniperus-procera - northern ethiopia - statistics notes - rain-forest
Tree regeneration is severely hampered in the fragmented afromontane forests of northern Ethiopia. We explored how trees regenerate in remnant forests along the gradient from open field, forest edge to closed sites and canopy gaps inside the forest. We investigated the effects of seed sowing, litter removal, and weeding on the regeneration success along this gradient. Regeneration success was investigated for four indigenous tree species, and measured in terms of seedling establishment, growth, and survival. Species performed differently according to site conditions. Within the forest, local canopy openings facilitated seed germination (Ekebergia), seedling growth (all species except Olea), or survival (Ekebergia and Olea), suggesting that all species benefited from local high light conditions in the forest. Outside the forest, germination (all species) and growth rates (Juniperus and Olea) were lower in the open field, most probably due to water stress in the dry season. Outer edge conditions favored growth for three of the four species. Natural seed germination was, however, zero at any site for Juniperus and Olea and low for Ekebergia and Prunus in the open field. Soil scarification influenced germination positively, while weeding did not have a positive effect. These results suggest that simple measures may improve seedling establishment, and that, for some species, forest edges are particularly useful for growth and survival after succesful establishment. Together with erecting fences, needed to protect seedlings against grazing, seed sowing, planting seedling, and soil scarification may contribute to maintain and restore church forests in the fragmented landscapes of northern Ethiopia
Local facilitation, bistability and transitions in arid ecosystems
Kefi, S. ; Rietkerk, M. ; Baalen, M. van; Loreau, M. - \ 2007
Theoretical Population Biology 71 (2007)3. - ISSN 0040-5809 - p. 367 - 379.
semiarid grazing systems - alternate stable states - plant-communities - self-organization - positive interactions - vegetation patterns - catastrophic shifts - competition - population - dynamics
Arid ecosystems are liable to undergo sudden discontinuous transitions from a vegetated to a desert state as a result of human pressure and climate change. A predictive framework about the conditions under which such transitions occur is lacking. Here, we derive and analyze a general model describing the spatial dynamics of vegetation in arid ecosystems considering local facilitation as an essential process. We investigate the conditions under which continuous or discontinuous transitions from a vegetated to a desert state are likely to occur. We focus on arid ecosystems but our approach is sufficiently general to be applied to other ecosystems with severe environmental conditions. The model exhibits bistability and vegetation patchiness. High local facilitation decreases the risk of discontinuous transitions. Moreover, for arid ecosystems where local facilitation is a driving process, vegetation patchiness indicates proximity to a transition point, but does not allow distinguishing between continuous and discontinuous transitions.
Nurse plants, tree saplings and grazing pressure: changes in facilitation along a biotic environmental gradient
Smit, C. ; Vandenberghe, C. ; Ouden, J. den; Muller-Scharer, H. - \ 2007
Oecologia 152 (2007)2. - ISSN 0029-8549 - p. 265 - 273.
positive interactions - wooded pastures - associational resistance - arid environments - communities - competition - stress - regeneration - metaanalysis - survival
Current conceptual models predict that an increase in stress shifts interactions between plants from competitive to facilitative; hence, facilitation is expected to gain in ecological importance with increasing stress. Little is known about how facilitative interactions between plants change with increasing biotic stress, such as that incurred by consumer pressure or herbivory (i.e. disturbance sensu Grime). In grazed ecosystems, the presence of unpalatable plants is reported to protect tree saplings against cattle grazing and enhance tree establishment. In accordance with current conceptual facilitation-stress models, we hypothesised a positive relationship between facilitation and grazing pressure. We tested this hypothesis in a field experiment in which tree saplings of four different species (deciduous Fagus sylvatica, Acer pseudoplatanus and coniferous Abies alba, Picea abies) were planted either inside or outside of the canopy of the spiny nurse shrub Rosa rubiginosa in enclosures differing in grazing pressure (low and high) and in exclosures. During one grazing season we followed the survival of the different tree saplings and the level of browsing on these; we also estimated browsing damage to the nurse shrubs. Shrub damage was highest at the higher grazing pressure. Correspondingly, browsing increased and survival decreased in saplings located inside the canopy of the shrubs at the high grazing pressure compared to the low grazing pressure. Saplings of both deciduous species showed a higher survival than the evergreens, while sapling browsing did not differ between species. The relative facilitation of sapling browsing and sapling survival ¿ i.e. the difference between saplings inside and outside the shrub canopy ¿ decreased at high grazing pressure as the facilitative species became less protective. Interestingly, these findings do not agree with current conceptual facilitation-stress models predicting increasing facilitation with abiotic stress. We used our results to design a conceptual model of facilitation along a biotic environmental gradient. Empirical studies are needed to test the applicability of this model. In conclusion, we suggest that current conceptual facilitation models should at least consider the possibility of decreasing facilitation at high levels of stress
High solar radiation hinders tree regeneration above the alpine treeline in northern Ecuador
Bader, M. ; Geloof, I. van; Rietkerk, M. - \ 2007
Plant Ecology 191 (2007). - ISSN 1385-0237 - p. 33 - 45.
positive interactions - climatic variability - conifer seedlings - photoinhibition - fire - facilitation - ecotones - stress - limits - cold
Many tropical alpine treelines lie below their climatic potential, because of natural or anthropogenic causes. Forest extension above the treeline depends on the ability of trees to establish in the alpine environment. This ability may be limited by different factors, such as low temperatures, excess solar radiation, competition, soil properties, dispersal ability, and fires. In this paper we address the following two questions: Do trees regenerate above the present treeline, and what are the inhibiting factors for tree establishment? To answer these questions we described the spatial pattern of recent tree establishment below and above the present treeline in northern Ecuador. Also, we experimentally transplanted seedlings into the alpine vegetation (páramo) and the forest, and investigated the effect of shade, neighboring plants, and substrate on their survival. The number of naturally occurring tree sprouts (seedlings, saplings and ramets) was highest just outside the forest, and decreased with distance to the forest edge. However, only two species that were radiation-tolerant made up these high numbers, while other species were rare or absent in the páramo. In the forest, the species diversity of sprouts was high and the abundance per species was relatively low. The transplanted seedlings survived least in experimental plots without artificial shade where neighboring plants were removed. Seedling survival was highest in artificially shaded plots and in the forest. This shade-dependence of most tree species can strongly slow down forest expansion toward the potential climatic treeline. Due to the presence of radiation-tolerant species, the complete lack of forest expansion probably needs to be ascribed to fire. However, our results show that natural processes can also explain both the low position and the abruptness of tropical treelines.