Mountain Biomes: Life At High Elevation

What makes a mountain ecosystem unique?

Mountains ecosystem
Plants and animals flourish in this mountain ecosystem in North Wales. Alan Novelli/Getty Images

Mountains are a constantly changing environment, in which plant and animal life varies with changes in elevation. Climb up a mountain and you may notice that the temperatures get colder, tree species change or disappear altogether, and the plants and animal species are different than those found on lower ground.

Want to learn more about the world's mountains and the plants and animals that live there? Read on.

What makes a mountain?

Inside the Earth, there are masses called tectonic plates that glide over the planet's mantle. When those plates crash into one another, the push the Earth's crust higher and higher into the atmosphere, forming mountains. 

Mountain climates

While all mountain ranges are different, one thing they do have in common is temperatures that are cooler than the surrounding area thanks to higher elevation. As air rises into the Earth's atmosphere, it cools down. This affects not only the temperature but also the precipitation.

Winds are another factor that make mountain biomes different from the areas around them. By nature of their topography, mountains stand in the path of winds. Winds can bring with them precipitation and erratic weather changes.

That means that the climate on the windward side of a mountain (facing the wind,) will likely be different from that of the leeward side (sheltered from the wind.) The windward side of a mountain will be cooler and have more precipitation, while the leeward side will be drier and warmer. 

Of course, this too will vary depending upon the location of the mountain. The Ahaggar Mountains in Algeria's Sahara Desert will not have much precipitation no matter which side of the mountain you are looking at.

Mountains and microclimates 

Another interesting characteristic of mountain biomes is the microclimates produced by the topography. Steep slopes and sunny cliffs may be home to one set of plants and animals while just a few feet away, a shallow but shaded area is home to a completely different array of flora and fauna.

These microclimates may vary depending upon the steepness of the slope, the access to the sun, and the amount of precipitation that falls in a localized area.

Mountain Plants and Animals

The plants and animals found in mountainous areas will vary depending upon the location of the biome. But here's a general overview:

Temperate zone mountains

Mountains in the temperate zone, such as the Rocky Mountains in Colorado generally have four distinct seasons. They usually have conifer trees on their lower slopes that fade into alpine vegetation (such as lupins and daisies,) above the tree line.

Fauna include deer, bears, wolves, mountain lions, squirrels, rabbits, and a wide variety of birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.  

Tropical mountains

Tropical areas are known for their species diversity and this holds true for the mountains found there. Trees grow tall and at elevations higher than in other climate zones. In addition to evergreen trees, tropical mountains may be populated by grasses, heathers, and shrubs.

Thousands of animals make their homes in tropical mountain areas. From the gorillas of Central Africa to the jaguars of South America, tropical mountains host huge numbers of animals.

Desert mountains

The harsh climate of a desert landscape - lack of rain, high winds, and little to no soil, makes it difficult for any plant to take root. But some, such as cacti and certain ferns, are able to carve out a home there.

And animals such as big horned sheep, bobcats, and coyotes are well adapted to live in these harsh conditions.

Threats to Mountain Biomes

As is happening in most ecosystems, the plants and animals found in mountain regions are changing thanks to the warmer temperatures and changing precipitation brought on by climate change. Mountain biomes are also threatened by deforestation, wildfires, hunting, poaching, and urban sprawl. 

Possible the biggest threat facing many mountainous regions today is that brought on by fracking - or hydraulic fracturing. This process of recovering gas and oil from shale rock can devastate mountain areas, destroying fragile ecosystems and possible polluting groundwater via by-product runoff.