The patchy distribution of high-Andean treeline forests has provoked discussion about the relative importance of anthropogenic and climatic causes of this pattern, both of which vary with topography. We aimed to understand the topographic controls on the distribution of Polylepis subsericans
treeline forests in the Andes of southern Peru, and the changes in these controls along an elevational gradient. We mapped Polylepis
forests in the Cordillera Urubamba, Cusco, using high-resolution aerial images and related forest cover to topographic variables extracted from a digital terrain model (30-m resolution). The variables were selected based on their expected biological relevance for tree growth at high elevations. We constructed logistic regression models of forest cover, separately for each of five 100-m elevational belts. To deal with spatial autocorrelation, models were based on randomized 10% subsampling of the data with 1000 repetitions. The results suggest a consistent shift in topographic preference with elevation, with forests at lower elevations showing a preference for topographically protected sites near rivers and forests at higher elevations being increasingly restricted to north-facing and well-drained sites. Our study offers the first indication of the ability of Andean treeline forests to benefit from the topographic heterogeneity of the high-Andes. Providing that dispersal and establishment are possible, local relocation between microsites could help these forests to persist regionally in spite of changing climatic conditions.
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