British Columbia: Alpine Region

Submitted by The Catt-Trax2 Team on Tue, 2007/01/09 - 2:51pm.
Report prepared by Dan Straker and Olivia Hell, students in BCIT’s Fish, Wildlife and Recreation Program.

You may think that the alpine zone is just a bunch of rocks and snow, good for skiing. While much of it is, certain parts of the alpine can be the most beautifully colourful and biodiverse in the world. While different plants and wildlife meet in this treeless zone to compete for the rare nutrients it has to offer, only the most highly specialized survive.

Some of the most interesting species live in the timberline, the narrow zone that divides the alpine from the subalpine. Trees begin to give way to lush meadows until soon no trees are able to survive the clime. As the elevation increases, cold, snow and wind make survival impossible for trees. The cold simply slows all processes down: the decay of organic matter, the melting of snow, the formation of soils.

The timberline can be divided into three narrower subzones. The lowest is the forest line, where forests begin to mix with subalpine meadows. The treeline in the middle is the upper limit of erect trees, and divides the subalpine and alpine. The highest is the krummholz line which is a German term for “crooked wood.” The only trees that survive here are stunted mats of conifers.

In B.C. there are three different timberlines: the coastal, interior and northern timberline. The major factor affecting the coastal timberline is the snow pack, which limits tree growth. Two important plants of the coastal timberline (coastal mountain-heather alpine zone) are white and pink mountain heathers. These can easily be mistaken for conifers as they have scale-like and needle-like leaves respectively. For the interior timberline, wind is the major factor because it draws out all the moisture in the needles and the tree has no way to replace that water. Plants of the interior (interior mountain heather alpine zone) include moss campion and white mountain-avens, both well suited to the warm drying winds of the interior. The northern timberline is mainly governed by the cold temperatures. The trees have a very short timeframe for new growth and seed germination due to sudden frosts in the summer months. Plants of the north (Boreal Altai Fescue Alpine zone) include grasses and lichens.

As a biome, its biodiversity is largely a result of the physical barriers that separate each alpine zone. If you think about it the zones could be thought of as islands surrounded by an ocean of forest. As the plants become better suited to life in the alpine they become less able to compete with the plants of the subalpine.

Wildlife found in the alpine tundra includes birds such as the American pipit, horned lark, gray-crowned rosy finch, black swift and ptarmigan. Insects are also common. Mammals of the alpine include ground squirrels, marmots, pikas, heather voles, mountain goat and mountain sheep.

As is the case in all harsh environments, evolution allows only the most highly adapted organisms to take on the challenge.

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