In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mountain Biomes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Online Databases and Web Pages
  • Defining the Mountain Biome
  • Climate, Geomorphology, Hydrology
  • Mountain Ecosystems

Ecology Mountain Biomes
Christoph Kueffer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0119


Mountains are landforms that rise prominently above the surrounding landscape. They are topographic features that are defined by a high relief, and their most general features are that they encompass a certain elevational range, have steep slopes, and converge toward small summit areas. Depending on the definition, up to a quarter of the global land area can be considered mountainous. Ecosystem services in mountains directly support about a quarter of the world population that lives in or near mountains, and many more humans depend on mountains, in particular as a source of water and minerals, and as a tourist destination. Many mountains have special cultural or spiritual significance. Mountains have attracted the interest of scientists since ancient times and have been of great importance to modern geography, biogeography, evolutionary biology, and ecology since the 18th century. Mountains are characterized by high species and habitat diversity that result from high environmental heterogeneity due to elevational gradients, exposure, orographic effects, and natural disturbances such as landslides, avalanches, and floods. The islandlike isolation of many mountains contributes to unique and diverse mountain biotas. At the same time mountains occur mostly as part of elongated ranges or chains that connect biotas across large geographic distances (e.g., the North and South American Cordilleras). Mountain ecosystems are increasingly exposed to human pressures including land-use changes (e.g., agriculture, livestock farming, tourism, urbanization, or abandonment), pollution, and climate change (e.g., loss of glaciers, melting of permafrost, desertification, increased frequency of natural hazards such as floods, landslides and avalanches, and spread of diseases and invasive species).

General Overviews

The diversity of mountains is limitless. They are found in all climate zones and biogeographic regions, include along their elevational gradients strongly contrasting vegetation zones, and they differ widely in their maximal elevation, geology, or human land use. Therefore, for introductory information on general features of mountains it is necessary to also consult treaties of particular vegetation zones (see Vegetation Zones) and geographic regions (see Mountain Regions of the World). Some of the classical historic work gives excellent overviews of mountains (see Historical Accounts and Foundational Works). A recent synthetic and evidence-based assessment of mountain ecosystems and their threat status is Körner, et al. 2005. An excellent and comprehensive textbook is Price, et al. 2013; in German, Franz 1979 is an available work. An Ambio Special Report on mountains includes, among others, two complementary overviews of biodiversity in mountains, Körner 2004 and Molau 2004. Körner and Spehn 2002 includes a representative collection of regional accounts of mountain biodiversity.

  • Franz, H. 1979. Ökologie der Hochgebirge. Stuttgart: Ulmer.

    A comprehensive compilation of information on all aspects of the ecology of high-elevation ecosystems—including animal ecology, human biology, and aquatic ecosystems—rooted in natural history. In German. “Hochgebirge der Erde” by the same author (1989, Urania-Verlag, Leipzig, Berlin) introduces the major mountain systems of the world.

  • Körner, C. 2004. Mountain biodiversity, its causes and function. Ambio 13:11–17.

    This general overview of mountain biodiversity gives estimates of species numbers in mountains, and discusses why mountains are highly biodiverse and in particular the importance of plant functional diversity for mountain ecosystems. It concludes with an outlook on the impacts of land use and climate change on mountain vegetation.

  • Körner, C., M. Ohsawa, and E. Spehn. 2005. Mountain systems. In Ecosystems and human well-being: Current state and trends. Findings of the conditions and trends working group of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Edited by R. Hassan, R. Scholes, and N. Ash, 681–716. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    Chapter 24 on “mountain systems” of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the available knowledge at the time on physical, biological, economic, and social conditions in the world’s mountains. It defines mountains; gives an overview of the global distribution of mountain areas; characterizes mountain climates, biotas, ecosystems and ecosystem services; and in particular reviews human pressures on mountain biodiversity and ecosystems. Available online.

  • Körner, C., and E. M. Spehn, eds. 2002. Mountain biodiversity: A global assessment. London: Parthenon.

    This edited volume is the outcome of an international conference organized in 2000 by the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA; see Online Databases and Web Pages). Apart from an almost exclusive focus on plant diversity, it covers different aspects of mountain biodiversity: the main mountain regions of the world; vegetation zones from montane forest to alpine vegetation; genetic, species, functional, and habitat diversity; and land use, climate change, and biodiversity conservation.

  • Molau, U. 2004. Mountain biodiversity patterns at low and high latitudes. Ambio 13:24–28.

    This concept paper addresses mountain biodiversity at different spatial scales, considering both genetic and species diversity. In particular it discusses how mountain biodiversity patterns differ between high latitudes and the tropics.

  • Price, M. F., A. C. Byers, D. A. Friend, T. Kohler, and L. W. Price, eds. 2013. Mountain geography: Physical and human dimensions. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This is a major revision of Mountains and Man (1981) by Larry Price and will likely become the general reference book on all aspects of mountain biomes like its predecessor. The multiauthored book is of global scope and includes chapters on origins of mountains, climate, geomorphology, soils, vegetation, wildlife, people, and sustainable development.

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