Why Do We Need Digital Elevation Models to Infer the Local Adaptation of Alpine Plants?

Post provided by Kevin Leempoel

dsc_4214-crest-flight-27-06-11It’s not easy to characterise the local environment of species living in mountains because these habitats are highly heterogeneous. At a large scale, we typically assume that temperature varies with altitude, but at a local scale, we understand that exposure to wind or being in the shade has a great influence on climatic conditions. If you go from the south-facing to the north-facing side of a mountain, it can be easily 5°C colder. If we can feel that, so can the organisms that live up there. Plants in particular are submitted to tremendous climatic variations over a year. What we want to know is: how did they adapt to these climatic variations and how localised is their adaptation?

Overcoming the Challenges of Measuring Local Adaptation

We don’t know much about how organisms adapt locally because it’s so difficult to measure the environmental conditions that these plants are facing. Existing weather stations can’t capture micro-habitat conditions because they are few and far between. What we can do instead, is use topographic models of mountains to model their environment. After all, if orientation, slope or shade have an impact on climatic conditions, why couldn’t we use them to model local variations in temperature for example? Continue reading

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