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Data from: The snow and the willows: earlier spring snowmelt reduces performance in the low-lying alpine shrub Salix herbacea


Wheeler, Julia A. et al. (2017), Data from: The snow and the willows: earlier spring snowmelt reduces performance in the low-lying alpine shrub Salix herbacea, Dryad, Dataset,


Current changes in shrub abundance in alpine and arctic tundra ecosystems are primarily driven by climate change. However, while taller shrub communities are expanding, dwarf shrub communities show reductions under climate warming, and the mechanisms driving the latter (such as warming temperatures or accelerated spring snowmelt) may be complex. To determine and disentangle the response of a widespread arctic-alpine prostrate dwarf shrub to both climate warming and changes in snowmelt time, we investigated phenology, clonal and sexual reproduction, leaf size, wood tissue carbon balance and leaf damage in 480 patches of Salix herbacea, along its elevational and snowmelt microhabitat range over three years in a space-for-time substitution. Earlier snowmelt was associated with longer phenological development periods, an increased likelihood of herbivory and fungal damage, lower stem density, smaller leaves and lower end-of-season wood reserve carbohydrates. Furthermore, while early snowmelt was associated with an increased proportion of flowering stems, the proportion of fruiting stems was not, as fruit set decreased significantly with earlier snowmelt. Warmer temperatures at lower elevations were associated with decreases in stem number and smaller leaves. Synthesis: Our study indicates that phenology, fitness proxies and fungal/insect damage of the dwarf shrub Salix herbacea (S. herbacea) are strongly influenced by snowmelt timing, and that earlier spring snowmelt reduced performance in S. herbacea. The likely mechanisms for many of the observed patterns are related to adverse temperature conditions in the early growing season. Reductions in clonal (stem number) and sexual reproduction (reduced fruit set) under earlier snowmelt, in addition to increasing damage probability, will likely lead to lower fitness and poorer performance, particularly in shrubs growing in early-exposure microhabitats. Further, we saw no concurrent benefits of higher temperatures for S. herbacea, particularly as warming was associated with lower clonal growth. As growing seasons become warmer and longer in arctic and alpine tundra ecosystems, early snowmelt is a critical mechanism reducing fitness and performance in a widespread dwarf shrub, and may ultimately reduce dwarf shrub communities in tundra biomes.

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