July 18-24, 2015.
THEY'RE living the high life. Way above the treeline on the world's highest mountains, tiny ecosystems thrive under their own private life-support domes.
A dome shape helps hundreds of plant species survive extreme wind and temperature. Working in the Altai mountains of Siberia, between 1750 and 4000 meters above sea level, Igor Volkov and Irina Volkova from Tomsk State University found that temperatures inside these "cushion plants" remained at a benign 5 to 7*C, despite outside temperatures fluctuating from below freezing to 15*C in a day (International Journal of Enviromental Studies, dol.org/54r). This microclimate favours microbial activity which causes dead leaves to decay, turning them into compost that further encourages plant growth. The researchers found, for example, that soil under the two-flower cinquefoil cushions contained 15 times as much organic material as the rocky areas near them.
Another team, led by Yang Yang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming, found that the diversity of plant species in China's Hengduan mountains was about 30 per cent higher within the cushion domes, than ouside. Species that could not otherwise survive were able to do so in these havens of life (Journal of Vegetative Science, dol.org/54s).
The cuchions are key to preserving the biodiversity of alpine areas, says Yang.