Sigmoid wave transitions at alpine treeline Academic Article uri icon


  • Ecotones that are controlled by a single environmental gradient or a set of correlated environmental factors are hypothesized to show a sigmoid wave form in percentage cover as the ecotone is crossed. This study investigates the sigmoid wave hypothesis at the alpine treeline in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. We find that approximately half of the sampled locations exhibit a sigmoid wave from in percentage cover across the ecotone. These results indicate that in some cases treeline is controlled by a single environmental gradient or a set of correlated environmental factors. However, in other cases, additional factors that are not correlated with the primary controlling gradient act to change the form of the transition. We investigated surficial geology as a possible controlling factor that would not be correlated with the primary climatic gradients found along transects across the alpine treeline. In at least some of the cases, surficial geology type was shown to be significantly associated with differences between sigmoidal and non-sigmoidal transitions. These results support previous evidence for sigmoid wave transitions at the boreal forest-tundra ecotone, but also show that the alpine treeline case is more complex. We argue that in cases where ecotones are used as sites for monitoring the effects of climate change on vegetation, care should be taken to utilize only sites that exhibit a sigmoidal transition so as to minimize the effects of non-climate-related controlling factors on the interpretations.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Cairns, D. M., & Waldron, J. D.

citation count

  • 18

complete list of authors

  • Cairns, DM||Waldron, JD

publication date

  • January 2003