The decrease in temperature with increasing elevation may determine the altitudinal tree distribution in different ways: affecting survival through freezing temperatures, by a negative carbon balance produced by lower photosynthetic rates, or by limiting growth activity. Here we assessed the relative importance of these direct and indirect effects of altitudinal decrease in temperature in determining the treeline in central Chile (33 degrees S) dominated by Kageneckia angustifolia. We selected two altitudes (2000 and 2200 m a.s.l.) along the treeline ecotone. At each elevation, leaf non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) and gas exchange parameters were measured on five individuals during the growing season. We also determined the cold resistance of K. angustifolia, by measuring temperatures that cause 50% seedling mortality (LT50) and ice nucleation (IN). No differences in net photosynthesis were found between altitudes. Although no differences were detected on NSC concentration on a dry matter basis between 2000 and 2200 m, when NSC concentration was expressed on a leaf area basis, higher contents were found at the higher elevation. Thus, carbon sink limitations may occur at the K. angustifolia's upper altitudinal limit. For seedlings derived from seeds collected at the 2200 m, LT50 of cold-acclimated and non-acclimated plants were -9.5 and -7 degrees C, respectively. However, temperatures as low as -10 degrees C can frequently occur at this altitude during the end of winter. Therefore, low temperature injury of seedlings seems also be involved in the treeline formation in this species. Hence, a confluence of global (carbon sink limitation) and regional (freezing tolerance) mechanisms explains the treeline formation in the Mediterranean-type climate zone of central Chile.
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