In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alpine Biome

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • General Overviews: Global Accounts
  • General Overviews: Regional Accounts
  • Journals
  • Databases
  • Defining and Describing the Alpine Biome
  • The Extent of the Alpine Biome
  • Historical Accounts
  • Top Alpine Ecology Papers, 2009 to 2013
  • Evolution of the Alpine Flora and Dynamics of the Alpine Biome
  • Population Processes
  • Community Ecology of Alpine Ecosystems
  • Ecosystem Processes
  • Ecophysiology
  • Climate Change: Experimental Work
  • Climate Change: Modeling
  • Ecosystem Services
  • Ecological Conservation and Restoration
  • Long-Term Studies

Ecology Alpine Biome
Laszlo Nagy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0150


Temperature decreases with latitude from the equator to the poles and with elevation from the lowlands to mountains peaks. A parallel change in biota, most apparent in how plant growth forms give rise to a sequence of tree-dominated biomes/vegetation belts, from tropical lowland evergreen rain forest to boreal taiga or upper montane forest, until tree growth form is no longer sustainable (latitudinal and elevational treelines) and the landscape changes into open low-stature shrub and forb vegetation: polar tundra at high latitudes and alpine vegetation in the mountains. While the concept of tundra biome is well established, no such thing as an “alpine biome” is recognized by most biogeographers. Biogeographically, the alpine “biome” is rather heterogeneous as it encompasses the climatically treeless cold-limited portions of mountain environments in all latitude climate/life zones from the tropics to the poles. The total extent of the alpine biome is estimated at being c. 3 percent of the total land surface of the Earth, where about 4 percent of known vascular plant species occur. The regional biological richness of alpine ecosystems is highly variable across continents, ranging from c. 200 plant species in the east African high volcanic mountains to more than 3,000 species in the north Andean “páramos.” Our knowledge of alpine ecosystems is uneven when mountains are considered worldwide. The Alps and other European mountains are well described botanically and zoologically, allowing comparative biogeographical analyses. Ecological and ecophysiological research in alpine ecosystems has been focusing on diversity/productivity-environment (primarily [micro-]climate) relationships: species acclimation, tolerance, and evolution, the bases of dispersal and distribution. The alpine biome has recently become a test field of the stress-gradient hypothesis and the focus of climate change impact studies, largely through modeling. The history and phylogeography of alpine organisms is also an active field. The number of population and community level studies is small in alpine ecosystems, and they are mostly associated with studying disturbance factors, such as (over)grazing or atmospheric deposition. While ecosystem services that alpine environments contribute to human well-being are increasingly being recognized, their sustainable use largely remains a theoretical consideration. Following major changes in land use in the 1960s, a large proportion of the biome is protected in economically developed countries; in developing countries it continues to provide important goods and services for sustaining local livelihoods. Initiatives are ongoing to undertake long-term integrated research to observe and report changes to the structure and functioning of alpine ecosystems in response to climate change and human land use.

Foundational Works

Most early accounts of the alpine biome reflect the history of alpine research, focusing on the European Alps and the Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological Research Program (LTER) site in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A wealth of literature is available written in German by Austrian, Swiss, and German botanists/ecologists (see, e.g., Stöckli, et al. 2011, cited under Historical Accounts). An excellent basic introduction to the vegetation of the Alps and its functioning is Reisigl and Keller 1994 (cited under General Overviews: Regional Accounts). Ozenda 1985 (cited under General Overviews: Regional Accounts) is a more detailed work on the Alps. Excellent synthetic reports on the vegetation of the Alps are found in Ellenberg 2009. Monasterio 1980 is an outstanding account on the Venezuelan Andes in Spanish. Bowman and Seastedt 2001 brings together the work from approximately forty years of research at Niwot Ridge. An introductory text on the New Zealand alpine environments is Mark 2012. The Himalayas are covered in Miehe and Pendry 2015. Hedberg 1964 (cited under General Overviews: Regional Accounts) is the best source for tropical Africa. Nagy and Grabherr 2009 provides worldwide coverage of the alpine biome. Narrower in geographical focus, but undoubtedly the best physiology and functional ecology-focused must-read “classic” is Körner 2003 on alpine plant life (cited under General Overviews: Global Accounts). Less well covered is animal life: an exception is Green and Osborne 1994 on the animal life of the Snowy Mountains of Australia; Nagy and Grabherr 2009 provides some basic information about animal life, by zonobiome, in chapter 6 (pp. 117–172).

  • Bliss, L. C. 1985. Alpine. In Physiological ecology of North American plant communities. Edited by B. F. Chabot and H. A. Mooney, 41–65. New York: Chapman & Hall.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-4830-3_3

    A seminal book chapter, published as part of a unique treatise of North American plant communities from the heydays of physiological ecology.

  • Bowman, W. D., and T. R. Seastedt, eds. 2001. Structure and function of an alpine ecosystem, Niwot Ridge, Colorado. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An excellent book that joins together the different lines of research from climate and early atmosphere-biosphere research to specific areas of ecological studies in alpine environments.

  • Ellenberg, H. 2009. Vegetation ecology of central Europe. 4th ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The book includes the Alps, along with central Europe (Germany, Switzerland, and Austria). A classic textbook of central European vegetation ecology (also available in German).

  • Green, K., and W. S. Osborne. 1994. Wildlife of the Australian Snow-Country. Chatsworth, Australia: Reed.

    An excellent synthesis of research on alpine and montane wildlife ecology of the Kosciuszko Mountains (“Australian Alps”).

  • Mark, A. F. 2012. Above the treeline: A nature guide to alpine New Zealand. Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potton.

    A popular easy-to-read introduction to the New Zealand alpine flora and vegetation, as part of an illustrated guide.

  • Miehe, G., and C. A. Pendry, eds. 2015. Nepal: An introduction to the natural history, ecology and human environment in the Himalayas. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden.

    This is the introductory volume to the Flora of Nepal series that contains a collection of up-to-date accounts on physiography, flora, and vegetation of the Nepalese Himalayas as we know it today, including lacunae in our knowledge. Has a wider Himalayan and trans-Himalayan relevance.

  • Monasterio, M., ed. 1980. Estudios ecolόgicos en los páramos andinos. Mérida, Venezuela: Universidad de los Andes.

    An excellent edited volume that has become a classic on the páramos of the Venezuelan Andes: their history, biogeography, vegetation ecology, and land-use impacts. All published work that has come out of the Universidad de los Andes since 1980 has its foundations in this excellent work; the book has had a major impact on much of the páramo research undertaken since its appearance (in Spanish).

  • Nagy, L., and G. Grabherr. 2009. The biology of alpine habitats. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book provides a global overview of alpine (high mountain) habitats that occur above the natural (cold-limited) treeline, describing the factors that have shaped them over both ecological and evolutionary timescales. The broad geographic coverage—the book discusses the unifying concepts of alpine ecology, along with providing examples from most climate zones of the world—helps to synthesize common features while revealing differences in the world’s major alpine systems from the arctic to the tropics.

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