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Less Forest, More Species: Climate Change Drives Declining Biodiversity in Tibet’s Mountainous Regions

Less Forest, More Species: Climate Change Drives Declining Biodiversity in Tibet’s Mountainous Regions

Normally, mountain forests are among the most diverse habitats in alpine regions. Yet, as a team from the Alfred Wegener Institute discovered in the Tibetan Plateau, the higher, treeless areas are home to far more species. Their findings, which were just published in the journal Nature Communications, can help to predict how the biodiversity of alpine regions will decline in response to global warming — when the mountain forests spread to higher elevations.

As anyone who has ever hiked in the mountains knows, the landscape changes with the elevation. At first, for a long time, you trek uphill through forests, until they open up into the first meadows and pastures, where a wide range of plant species bloom in the spring. Farther up, the landscape becomes more barren. Only those plants that have adapted to the alpine climate can thrive here. In order to map the vegetation of the alpine world, biologists most often investigate plant diversity along so-called elevation levels. First they examine the plants in the sprawling forests, then in the alpine meadows, and then in the rocky upper reaches. No matter where researchers do so — in the Alps, the Caucasus or the Rocky Mountains — the results are always similar: the extensive forests are the most species-rich region. With increasing elevation, biodiversity steadily declines.

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