Invasive plants reaching new elevations

With humans traveling and occupying the world more intensively every day, invasions by nonnative plant species are becoming an omnipresent pattern. People transport countless plant seeds as they travel that might, or might not, establish and disrupt local ecosystems.

Until recently, remote places in the alpine and sub(ant)arctic world were considered safe from these plant invasions. It was generally accepted that climate conditions where too harsh to allow the survival of species that weren’t cold-adapted.

This fairly optimistic statement has been refuted by several recent observational studies that listed an ever growing group of nonnative species, steadily marching uphill and towards the poles.

Mountain roads serve as vectors for invading plants.

Mountain roads serve as vectors for invading plants.

A very important factor is that their invasion is facilitated by us humans as we build roads, railways, walking trails, and several other forms of disturbances that are known to be the perfect vectors for plant invasions.

Invasive broom along the shore of a Patagonian mountain lake.

Invasive broom along the shore of a Patagonian mountain lake.

The South American continent hosts some of the world’s most precious mountain regions, but it is also a continent with severely advanced levels of plant invasions. Fast action is needed to preserve the untouched beauty of these areas.

Non-native white clover, introduced by Europeans

Non-native white clover, introduced by Europeans

But there is a problem. A large part of the information on plant invasions comes from lowland environments in the heavily studied Western world. Invasive species might however react completely different to the conditions on high elevations. Disturbance might be the big promotor of invasion in the lowlands, but the effect can as easily be the complete opposite at the highest peaks. We don’t know. How many other factors is this the case for?

Poplar invasion in the Patagonian Andes

Poplar invasion in the Patagonian Andes

It is our goal to disentangle these factors. We are on a hunt for the differences between lowland and highland invasions, a hunt that should ultimately result in reliable predictions for the future of invasions in the mountains. Focussing on South America will add valuable and highly lacking information on the processes of plant invasion on the Southern Hemisphere to the story.

With a team of plant ecologists from all over the world, we are trying to synthesize the knowledge about mountain plant invasions to come up with good strategies to prevent the further spread of potentially dangerous species.

It might not be too late, but the clock is ticking…

Fieldwork overlooking Punta Arenas in southern Chile.

Fieldwork overlooking Punta Arenas in southern Chile.

This post was originally posted on after a question of their redaction to blog about our research plans in South America. 

There even exists a Spanish version of the post, which got serious Twitter coverage on the Southern Hemisphere!! Very excited about that!

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3 Responses to Invasive plants reaching new elevations

  1. thegreyeye says:

    Wow, I was totally unaware of this.And I find your subject is a totally amazing one. What is the prerequisite of studying mountain ecology? I did not even know such a beautiful subject exists for studying . I mean we all know about ecology at a basic level, but so scientific an approach ? hats off you guys

    • I just rolled into mountain ecology through my studies, all of a sudden you are doing research on the most beautiful locations in the world and you’re hooked… :). Of course, mountain ecology is just one of the million subdisciplines in ecology, with a lot of overlap, but they are definitely worth to have their own ‘domain’ :).

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