December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Emma Brown finds that mountains may not be the shapes we thought they were - when considering wildlife habitat - and this may be good news
himalayas shutterstock_269127806
The Himalayas (pictured) tend to be ‘hourglass’ shaped when looking at habitat availability, in comparison to ‘diamond-shaped’ (the Rockies), ‘pyramid-shaped’ (the Alps), or ‘inverse pyramids’ (the Kunlun Mountains of China)

How do random field observations lead to a brand new tool for wildlife conservationists? Inspiration struck Princeton University researcher Paul Elsen while trekking through the Himalayas of northern India in pursuit of rare birds.

“Birds and other animals are responding to climate change in mountains by shifting their ranges upslope to stay within their optimal temperature niche,” Elsen said. “They’re going to areas that open into broad, expansive highlands. It seemed like there was a ton of area available for them, and I was just wondering if that’s actually a bad thing.”

Amidst the onslaught of dire warnings as global temperatures continue to rise, Elsen shows guarded optimism for biodiversity preservation on the world’s tallest mountain ranges. His ensuing study found that species living in areas such as the Himalayas and the Rocky Mountains may not suffer as severely from climate change as conservationists fear.

Elsen and his colleagues used satellite and radar data to calculate the surface area at different elevations for almost 200 of the world’s mountain ranges. Less than one-third of these actually fit the typical pyramid shape. Instead, the majority of their profiles show, to varying extents, greater surface areas higher up the mountain.

Their findings defy traditional conservation models that assume available space decreases as species move up the mountain. This assumption has led to concerns over resource scarcity and overcrowding, but Elsen said that the majority of the results showed “different patterns from what we classically expect, and from what is so prevalent in people’s minds.”

Global conservation efforts can now use these publicly available profiles to make more informed decisions. The profiles predict where on the mountain species will bottleneck on their shift upwards, and where their best chance of survival lies.

Elsen is quick to point out that survival is not guaranteed, even with more space as new competition, new predators and new diseases may lurk at different elevations. He does express some hope, however; “I still think having more area is going to buffer against those threats. I think there are some optimistic futures for these species.”

Elsen may have taken the heat off of climate change – for now – but there are many other factors negatively affecting local wildlife. “They’re under incredible threat from agriculture, logging, hunting,” Elsen said. He will return to the Himalayas next year to continue monitoring the impacts of climate change and habitat alteration on endangered birds.

Emma Brown is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Image: Himalaya Mountains View from Poon Hill 3210m at sunrise (Shutterstock)

Citation: Paul R. Elsen & Morgan W. Tingley (2015) Global mountain topography and the fate of montane species under climate change. Nature Climate Change doi:10.1038/nclimate2656