Mountains offer unique habitats and often shelter species found nowhere else on earth. These location-specific species, referred to as “endemics,” are of great interest to scientists committed to preserving biodiversity. For example, in 1998, the Academy launched a survey of the Gaoligongshan region in China. Academy botanist Peter Fritsch found a never-before-seen parasitic flowering plant (called Balanophora involucrata) that looks like a mushroom. In total, the Academy team added more than 1,800 new specimens to the Academy's collection.
More recently, in the Udzungwa Mountains in Tanzania, Academy research associate Galen Rathbun uncovered a new species of giant elephant-shrew. The species, named the grey-faced sengi, is the first new giant elephant-shrew species to be discovered in more than a century.
As temperatures rise in the northern hemisphere as a result of global warming, scientists predict that local vegetation will change as well. Vegetation that thrives in cooler conditions will take root further north. Animals that feed on those plants will move north, too. To save as many species as possible, some scientists have proposed the formation of north-south wilderness corridors to help migratory species survive. Scientists have also begun exploring the different life zones that occur at different mountain elevations as yet another option to help species survival.
As Academy scientist Dave Kavanaugh explains, in cases where urban development prevents migratory species from moving north, wilderness advocates can help animals to move upwards instead. “Mountains can provide a buffer against climate change because they allow animals to survive without having to travel so far or so quickly,” he says. “A creature can walk 100 feet uphill to find a newly hospitable environment that would otherwise require 100 miles of northern movement.” For this reason, mountain peaks should be part of any comprehensive plan for species preservation.
Life on a mountain can be hard. Dry, cold conditions at high altitudes mean short growing seasons and unpredictability. At high elevations, temperatures can swing 100 degrees between day and night. To cope, plant and animal species at these heights have evolved interesting adaptations for survival. Academy entomologist Dave Kavanaugh, for example, has discovered a group of cold-adapted Nebria beetles in the Sierra Nevada that synthesizes a special chemical in their bloodstream, which acts much like antifreeze and keeps their bodies from freezing in the sub-zero winters and on cold nights.
The peaks of the world’s highest mountains are located in the coldest layers of Earth’s atmosphere—also called the "Aeolian zone." At this elevation, ice can kill tree branches and wind can blast the bark off trees. The growing season becomes shorter and atmospheric radiation grows more intense.
These barren peaks may appear devoid of life. But, in fact, plenty of life exists. Predatory species such as spiders and insects survive in these often snow-covered reaches thanks to wind currents that carry and deliver a steady stream of nutrients. Thousands of insects, pollen grains, and other organic matter are lifted from lower elevations as heated air rises. There is so much nutrient-rich material in these air masses that the falling debris will sometimes blanket the snow at the highest elevation with organic matter.