Nature's Hidden Wonders: Unveiling the Arctic-Alpine Plant Engineers
When we think of polar regions or high-altitude mountains, we often imagine vast stretches of ice, snow, and barren landscapes. However, amidst these harsh environments, there exists a breath-taking display of brightly-coloured flowers. Defying the odds, not only surviving in some of the harshest habitats on Earth but also playing a crucial role in engineering the landscape for other species.
So don't let their delicate appearance fool you—species like rock jasmine, sandwort, and purple saxifrage thrive in extreme locations such as Mount Everest, the Arctic, and the European Alps. These freezing cold environments have shaped these plants into low-statured wonders, hugging the ground in the form of rosettes and cushions. With tightly packed leaves and efficient storage systems, they have evolved to trap moisture and heat, surviving freezing temperatures and fierce winds.
Silene acaulis. Photo credit: Lotte De Maeyer
These resilient Arctic-Alpine plants are more than just survivors. They are keystone species and ecosystem engineers, playing a vital role in stabilizing their micro climate and creating habitats suitable for other plant species. Cushion plants and mosses colonize bare grounds, improving soil quality, and buffering temperature extremes. In turn, these habitats become shelters for small arthropods, acting as pollinators and supporting the food chain.
Saxifraga species growing between rocks. Photo Credit: Lotte De Maeyer
However, the changing climate is now threatening their existence. Rising temperatures and earlier snow melt disrupt the delicate balance, allowing invasive species from lower altitudes to encroach upon their territory. Taller generalist plants are crowding out the smaller Arctic-Alpines, pushing them towards extinction.
Climate change poses a grave threat to these extraordinary species, it becomes our responsibility to appreciate, protect, and raise awareness about their plight. By doing so, we can ensure the preservation of polar biodiversity and the invaluable lessons these remarkable plants have to teach us.
Want to read more about these miniature marvels? Have a look at the full article published by The Conversation – Academic rigour, journalistic flair, written by Sarah Watts, a PhD researcher in plant ecology and conservation, University of Stirling.