Not much can live where the Himalayas scrape the sky. The tallest mountain range in the world forms the backdrop for a range of environments, from wet rainforests at the base to glacial snowpack at the summit. But now scientists studying the mountains in India have found something surprising: the highest living plants in the world.
Discovered growing at 6,150 meters (20,177 feet) above sea level, the six species of cushion plants are now the highest known vascular plants, although algae and mosses have been found even further up the slopes.
The newly found vascular plants, reported in Microbial Ecology, show signs of stress from living at such high altitudes. Even so, they have seemingly been living there for many years, with evidence from the roots suggesting that some have been growing for at least two decades.
Living at such heights is not only limited by the temperature, the higher you go, the higher the levels of radiation, wind, and aridity. So living at such dizzying altitudes requires some pretty serious adaptations. The newly discovered plants are slow growing, and despite some being decades old, they are no larger than a coin. They also have their own natural high-sugar antifreeze and their leaves are arranged so that they trap warm air.
Roey Angel et. Microbial Ecology
The researchers also analyzed the bacteria in the soil surrounding the diminutive roots to determine the role that the microorganisms play in plant colonization at these altitudes. They found that the ground was dominated by bacteria usually associated with desert soils, which is no doubt related to the aridity of the environment on top of the mountains.
The team suspect that the bacteria arrived with the seeds of the plants as they dispersed up the slopes, and the bacterial communities have developed as the plants then germinated and took root.
As the planet continues to warm, it is thought that the conditions will start to alter, which may allow more vascular plants to colonize higher up the mountain. In the region that the plants were found, which is on the bare slopes of a retreating glacier, the temperature has already risen by a balmy 6°C (11°F) in the last decade alone. If the temperature continues to rise like this, it is expected that soon we’ll be seeing far more high-living plants in the future.