The summit of Chimborazo in Ecuador

The summit of Chimborazo in Ecuador, 2 centuries after Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition

SPANI Arnaud/hemis.fr/Getty Images

Introducing a Science special issue on mountain ecosystems

Relief begets diversity. Mountain landscapes host a rich variety of flora and fauna, engendered by their concentrated diversity of climatic and ecological conditions. Two centuries on from Alexander von Humboldt’s pioneering research in the Tropical Andes, mountains remain fertile ground for studying the interplay between the biological and physical environment and for understanding the evolutionary adaptations that permit survival of animals, plants, and people at higher elevations. Mountains under the sea, too, are magnets for a diversity of life, much of which has yet to be explored and described.

Mountain environments are also fragile, as they are in the firing line of human exploitation and climate change. As temperatures rise, vegetation zones shift upslope, squeezing the ranges of montane organisms. As glaciers recede and forests dwindle, the capacity of the montane environment to supply water to surrounding lowlands decreases. The protection of the world’s uplands, for their natural riches and the human communities that rely on them, is becoming increasingly urgent.