Mountainous Matters

Writing the perspective Why Mountains Matter for Biodiversity (Perrigo et al. 2020) was a chance for myself, along with Carina Hoorn and Alexandre Antonelli, to explore and distill some of the ideas that came up while editing a book that was published two years ago: Mountains, Climate and Biodiversity (Hoorn et al., 2018).

One of many early versions of a figure from the paper that were exchanged by the authors to make sure all the processes they showed were as accurate as possible.

Mountains are increasingly discussed in relation to biodiversity and, more specifically, biogeography. This is logical: mountains are much less affected by direct human activity as compared with lowlands, meaning they tend to be more “natural” systems to study. They are important when it comes to climate change as well. Often, a population must move a shorter distance to track a suitable habitat on a mountain, as the climatic variation from increasing altitude parallels the changes seen in increasing latitude in many ways. 

Perrigo, A, Hoorn, C, Antonelli, A. (2020) Why mountains matter for biodiversity. Journal of Biogeography 47(2): 315–325. OPEN ACCESS

Critically, in the coming decades mountains will play a key role in biodiversity conservation as refugia for many species. These “Anthropocene nunataks” will be surrounded by seas of land that is exploited by humans, making a barrier to dispersal that may be analogous to the ice sheets that surrounded ice age nunataks.

While hiking up Mt Bisoke in Rwanda (ca. 3700 m), it is possible to observe a progression of vegetation types—influenced by the changing altitude—in a matter of hours. 

In our perspective we outline what we see as some of the biggest challenges we now face in moving the study of mountain biodiversity forward. Among these are the relatively low availability of sufficiently specific data compared to lowlands on, for example, climate, soil-type and vegetation patterns. We also express the need for more studies that incorporate both theoretical and empirical aspects to push method development forward, while highlighting good examples.  

Trans- and inter-disciplinary projects are encouraged throughout academia to explore novel perspectives. But often these are a challenge in practice because we are “speaking different languages,” to steal a phrase I have heard repeatedly about this type of work. Even though geology and biology are just a stone’s throw from one another, there are mountains between us (pun intended…). This became increasingly apparent while working with the various chapters of the book, where differences in terminology and tradition often led to misunderstandings. These were frequently a result of mutual knowledge gaps. 

The table in our perspective is one of our most concrete efforts to overcome this. It summarizes the different methods used for dating mountains. The concept is simple: different methods are used to figure out just how old mountains are. But in practice, especially for biologists, it can be daunting to understand these methods in context and relative to one another. What ages are they good for? When would you use one or the other? Where can you even look to figure out what they mean or how they work, in basic terms? 

However, in the beginning this information wasn’t laid out as a table. Carina Hoorn was the mastermind behind the mountain dating overview, but it was initially a long text with a repeating pattern: dating method, how it works, when it is best used, ages it is relevant for, references, and so on. It was extremely informative, but hard to navigate. After some discussion we realized: maybe this information would be better presented as a table? In the end, it was much easier to both read and interpret this way. The mountain dating table is a cornerstone of this perspective: we hope this accessible overview opens up doors for further cross-disciplinary understanding. 

We see a value in reflecting on a project after its completion, especially one with as many contributors as Mountains, Climate and Biodiversity.  Like Humboldt, whose work was among our constant inspirations for this perspective, we attempted to find key themes in a massive amount of information from various disciplines and from this take the parts we found the most interesting, useful and provocative. 

Finally, we are encouraged by the growing interest in mountain biodiversity we have seen over the last few years. We have received positive feedback and started new discussions stemming from both Mountains, Climate and Biodiversityand the early online version of our perspective. This issue of the Journal of Biogeography features three other mountain-themed papers (Brambach et al. 2020, Li et al. 2020 and Maicher et al. 2020), and follows on the heels of the 2019 special issue celebrating Humboldt’s 250-year birthday and the legacy of his work.  

Written by: Allison Perrigo.

Director, Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden. @DrSlimeMold, @GGBC_GU

I would like to thank Carina Hoorn (@carinahoorn), Harith Farooq, and Ferran Sayol who all provided feedback on this blog post, as well as Alexandre Antonelli (@antonelli_lab) for discussions on the content. All three co-authors (AP, CH, AA) are grateful to all of the authors who contributed to Mountains, Climate and Biodiversity

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