New research aims to prevent loss of alpine plant species

Alpine areas contain a rich biodiversity of plant species that are both culturally and ecologically important. A new study co-led by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Julie Deslippe has shown which plants are most at risk of decline or extinction due to global warming.

Alpine plants

“Alpine ecosystems have historically been extreme environments, where only high alpine specialist plant species could establish and thrive,” Dr Deslippe says. “Climate change is rapidly impacting these extreme environments.”

As the climate warms, lowland species can expand their range upslope in alpine areas, putting pressure on the species that live higher in the mountains.

“While some alpine species may benefit from milder growing conditions, others may not, and all will have to contend with increased competition by the new plants moving upslope. This combination of climate change and species invasion potentially puts huge numbers of alpine species at risk of decline and extinction.”

The study involved 20 collaborators from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, and China. The New Zealand branch of the project was led by Dr Deslippe with support from Professor Kath Dickinson from the University of Otago. The researchers each spent two summers tramping through mountain ranges to collect their data: “We wore out a lot of tramping boots,” says Dr Deslippe.

The data researchers collected in their respective countries showed similar types of alpine species are at risk of decline due to climate change.

“We found that plants that live at lower elevations and have a wider area in which they can grow are generally more resilient,” Dr Deslippe says. “Plants that grow higher on mountains and can only grow in a small area are more likely to suffer due to climate change.”

Climate change is associated with biodiversity loss in many ecosystems around the world. Dr Deslippe hopes the data collected in this study will help land managers identify the species that will likely require conservation interventions to survive, as well as help them support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems in alpine areas.

“Our work has provided broad and general guidelines for land managers about which species may be at risk. But local conditions, such as land use and management actions, are huge factors dictating the persistence of native plant communities in the face of emerging threats, such as climate change and species invasions.”

The research team now plans to collect data from other mountainous regions around the world.

“Globally there remains a lot of work to be done to secure the future of species that live in habitats at risk from human-induced climate change,” Dr Deslippe says.

“The UN has declared the 2020s as the Decade of Restoration. We must conserve and restore habitats, and take actions such as habitat protection, seed banking, captive breeding, and weed control to prevent species decline.”