Significant replacement of shrub species by herbaceous species has been observed in the Changbai alpine tundra zone, China, since the 1990s. This study used plot surveys to analyze variations in the spatial distribution of dominant plants and to ascertain the changing mechanisms of dominant species in the alpine tundra zone. We found that the two previously dominant shrubs, Rhododendron chrysanthum
and Vaccinium uliginosum
, differed markedly in their distribution characteristics. The former had the highest abundance and the lowest coefficient of variation, skewness, and kurtosis, and the latter showed the opposite results, while the six herb species invaded had intermediate values. R. chrysanthum
still had a relatively uniform distribution, while the herbaceous species and V. uliginosum
had a patch distribution deviating from the normal distribution in the tundra zone. Micro-topography and slope grade had stronger effects on the spatial distribution of the eight plant species than elevation. Herbs tended to easily replace the shrubs on a semi-sunny slope aspect, steep slope, and depression. Overall, the dominance of dwarf shrubs declined, while the herbaceous species have encroached and expanded on the alpine tundra zone and have become co-dominant plant species. Our results suggest that various micro-topographic factors associated with variations in climatic and edaphic conditions determine the spatial distribution of plants in the alpine tundra zone. Future climate warming may cause decreased snow thickness, increased growing season length, and drought stress, which may further promote replacement of the shrubs by herbs, which shows retrogressive vegetation successions in the Changbai alpine tundra zone. Further studies need to focus on the physio-ecological mechanisms underlying the vegetation change and species replacement in the alpine tundra area under global climate change.
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