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The alpine zone is the part of a mountain or mountain range above the tree line, which can be anywhere between 800 m (2600 ft) above sea level (as in Sweden) to 5200 m (17,000 ft) above sea level (as in the Bolivian Andes), but typically between 2000 m (6500 ft) and 4000 m (13,000 ft). Alpine zones are frequently cold, windy, and rocky, demanding animals with special adaptations to cope with the harsh climate. Due to the rarity of large predators high on mountains, the climate and relative lack of available food is the main challenge alpine animals have to face. The larger alpine animals often have large, strong lungs, which help them breathe the sparse air near the top of mountain peaks.
Some alpine animals include the mountain goat (North America), the llama and alpaca (South America), the chinchilla (South America), the Alpine Ibex (Alps), the Chinese Mountain Cat (China), cougar (North and South America), the Alpine Stream Salamander (China), yak (Tibet), and various rodents and birds, including the Golden Eagle. At the highest altitudes (such as those found on parts of the Tibetan Plateau in Asia), the only life are birds, rodents, and/or insects. Alpine animals have been found at some of the highest possible altitudes, including a black jumping spider found at 22,000 ft (6,700 m) on Mt. Everest.
In America, one of the most widely recognized alpine animals is the mountain goat, famous for its thick coat and sure-footedness. The mountain goat is in fact not a true goat, but one genus of several in the class of animals known as goat-antelopes. The mountain goat is the only member of its genus, Oreamnos. Like many other animals adapted to cold, the mountain goat has a double layer of fur including an undercoat of guard hairs and a larger outer coat. These alpine animals are so well insulated that they can withstand temperatures as low as -50 degrees F (-46 degrees C) and wind speeds of up to 100 mph. They could probably live in parts of Antarctica if there were food to eat.
There are several peoples that depend on alpine animals for their survival. Two are the people of the Andes and the Tibetan people. These cultures rely on llamas/alpacas and the yak respectively. These animals take the place of cattle, pigs, or other more typical barnyard animals that would never survive at such high altitudes. The thick coats of these animals are ideal to make jackets out of, their meat is highly edible, and all of them produce milk for drinking. If it weren't for these high altitude domesticated animals, the Andes and the Tibetan plateau might be uninhabitable.
I've always found the lemming to be one of the more interesting inhabitants of the alpine grasslands.
For instance, did you know that they can burrow through the snow, making tunnels that allow them to get at the soft grass stems under the snow?
Also, contrary to popular belief, lemmings do not run themselves off of cliffs. This is a common misconception perpetuated by early animal TV shows, which actually included film crews stampeding lemmings off of cliffs just to get a shot.
However, lemmings do not run off of cliffs, although the do migrate in mass, and sometimes end up dying as they try to swim across rivers.
But no suicidal lemmings -- that myth has been busted long ago.
I really liked how you mentioned the physical characteristics that animals need to survive in alpine habitats.
For instance, although it makes sense that alpine animals would need stronger lungs because of the thinner air, I don't think I would have ever thought of that just right off.
I do have one question though -- how are alpine animals adapted to deal with the alpine vegetation?
I know that a lot of times it is very sparse, and covered in snow, so I was wondering how they would be able to get to the alpine grass and other vegetation.
I imagine that this would be easier for smaller animals that could tunnel under the snow, but what about the larger ones, like the yaks or caribou?
How does that work?
Thanks for this article -- my daughter was researching a paper on the alpine tundra biome animals and plants, and all I could suggest to her was polar bears.
This was definitely more informative! Thanks for that, wisegeek.
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