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High plasticity in germination and establishment success in the dominant forest tree Fagus sylvatica across Europe

Aim: Distribution ranges of temperate tree species are shifting poleward and upslope into cooler environments due to global warming. Successful regeneration is crucial for population persistence and range expansion. Thus, we aimed to identify environmental variables that affect germination and seedling establishment of Europe's dominant forest tree, to compare the importance of plasticity and genetic variation for regeneration, and to evaluate the regeneration potential at and beyond the southern and northern distribution margins. Location: Europe. Time period: 2016–2018. Major taxa studied: European beech (Fagus sylvatica (L.)). Methods: We investigated how germination, establishment and juvenile survival change across a reciprocal transplantation experiment using over 9,000 seeds of beech from 7 populations from its southern to its northern distribution range margins. Results: Germination and establishment at the seedling stage were highly plastic in response to environmental conditions. Germination success increased with warmer and declined with colder air temperature, whereas establishment and survival were hampered under warmer and drier conditions. Germination differed among populations and was positively influenced by seed weight. However, there was no evidence of local adaptation in any trait. Main conclusions: The high plasticity in the early life-history traits found irrespective of seed origin may allow for short-term acclimatization. However, our results also indicate that this plasticity might not be sufficient to ensure the regeneration of beech in the future due to the low survival found under dry and hot conditions. The future climatic conditions in parts of the distribution centre and at the rear edge might thus become limiting for natural regeneration, as the likelihood of extreme heat and drought events will increase. By contrast, at the cold distribution margin, the high plasticity in the early life-history traits may allow for increasing germination success with increasing temperatures and may thus facilitate natural regeneration in the future.

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