Over the last 20 years, several studies comparing recent survey data with historical data from the early 20th century documented an increase in species numbers on high mountain summits of the European Alps. This increase has more or less explicitly been attributed to an upward migration of plant species due to anthropogenic climate warming. However, a reconsideration of the historical and recent data has revealed that more than 90% of the recent species occurrences on mountain summits concern species that were already present at the same or even at higher altitudes within the study region at the time of the historical surveys. This finding suggests that suitable habitats already occurred on these summits under the mesoclimatic conditions prevailing at the beginning of the 20th century and that these habitats were, at least in part, occupied by these plant species. Consequently, the observed increase in species number during the last century does not require the additional temperature increase due to anthropogenic climate change. We therefore consider the phenomenon of increasing species number on high mountain summits to be primarily the result of a natural dispersal process that was triggered by the temperature increase at the end of the Little Ice Age and that is still in progress mostly due to the dispersal limitation of the species involved. Since both the natural dispersal process and a potential upward migration due to anthropogenic climate warming would take place at the same time, we suggest seeding and transplanting experiments in order to assess their respective roles in the increase in species number on mountain summits.
Nomenclature: Aeschimann & Heitz (1996).