In this work, we analyse the role of climatic constraints in shaping the distribution of alien plant species along the elevation gradient in the European Alps. Alien species occurrence was recorded in 278 plots located beside rivers, from 100 to 2,100 m a. s. l. Climate variables were calculated from the data recorded by 145 meteorological stations and interpolated by a multiple regression approach. Both richness and occurrence of aliens were modelled. In particular, relationships between the occurrence of alien plants and (1) elevation or (2) the climatic variables, were tested by applying generalised linear models and generalised linear mixed models; the model parameters obtained were used to estimate upper elevation limits of alien occurrence and their related climate values. Sixty-eight alien species were encountered, the majority (71%) invasive in Italy and worldwide. A steep decrease in alien species richness with elevation was found, with the probability of alien species occurrence decreasing by half for each 100 m increase in elevation. Minimal adequate models based on (1) non-transformed climatic variables and (2) derived PCA values, confirmed that occurrence of alien plant species along the elevation gradient was positively related to the minimum temperature, the mean temperature and the heat sum for the spring season, rather than to the incidence of absolute minimum temperature and frost days, as usually assumed. Although further experimental analyses are needed, these results support the hypothesis that, referring to climate factors, elevation limits along rivers are mainly established by low spring temperatures which operate at the level of population viability rather than plant survival.
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