A glimpse of a spectacular mountain peak or the panoramic view from a mountaintop must be among the most inspiring sights in the natural world.
Mountains lift our spirits, and they also harbour a wealth of species – some obscure, some iconic – that are perfectly adapted to the high life and, in many cases, are found nowhere else on the planet.
In Central Asia, for example, sure-footed argali sheep and Asiatic ibex play high-altitude hide-and-seek with hungry snow leopards, which have evolved thick coats and small ears to minimise heat loss, and a long tail to improve balance on precipitous ledges. Elsewhere, mountain gorillas – larger, stockier, longer-haired and shorter-armed than their lowland cousins – cling to survival on their island of montane forest in Central Africa’s Virunga Massif. And there are countless others.
It is no coincidence that half of the so-called biodiversity hotspots in the world (areas that hold a particularly wide range of threatened species) are located in mountainous terrain. As you hike up a mountainside, the steep incline means that within a relatively short distance you move through a series of microhabitats that differ subtly but significantly from each other according to the prevailing conditions at that altitude. Variations in aspect and gradient, rainfall, oxygen levels, soil quality, temperature and vegetation create successive layers of habitat to which different species have adapted over time.
Although biodiversity decreases with altitude, the species that do occur can be unique to these islands in the sky, having become separated over time and often having evolved in complete isolation from other, once similar species.