Climb or die — Himalayan plants on steep trek to survive climate change

Meconopsis aculeata ( Queen of Himalyan flowers)   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Found from Kumaon to Kashmir at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 meters, the Blue poppy, Meconopis acculette, is considered the Queen of Himalayan Flowers.

However, a recent comparative study of abundance of the species in alpine moraines at different elevations indicated that it is slowly depleting at lower altitudes and rocky moraines. High alpine rock screes — small, loose stones and rock fragments — and lateral periglacial moraines seem to be the core occupancy zone of the species.

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Not only the Blue Poppy but several other flowering plants, found at very high altitudes, are facing the “climb higher or die” situation due to climate change.

Details of the vulnerable periglacial species and their survival strategies have been recorded in a publication from the Botanical Survey of India ( BSI) in a recent study: “Periglacial Flora of Western Himalayas Diversity And Climate Change Vulnerability”. The publication lists 243 such plants found at very high altitude, fragile ecosystems.

Vulnerable habitats

Plants belonging to the group Saussurea, such as the endangered Himkamal, including Saussurea Obvallata and Saussurea gnaphaloides, have been found vulnerable to habitat loss and population depletion. Researchers also recorded that the Solms-laubachia himalayensis, a high-altitude flowering plant, was now found at higher reaches, above 6,000 metres.

The researchers also list extremely habitat sensitive periglacial endemic species which showed different levels of depletion. Species belonging to the genus Corydalis like Corydalis violacea and Corydalis meifolia, and Waldhemia vestita — commonly named Wolly Ground Daisy — are among those with falling numbers.

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During the recent field exploration, scientists could not locate Sedum seelemanni, known only by the type collection in 1886, raising the alarming prospect of the species having gone extinct.

“We had data of the habitat of the peri-glacial flowering plants from the 1960s which was published in 1975. This publication is based on field data collected only a few years ago and gives an idea about the horizontal and vertical movements of the species,” said D.K. Singh, former BSI scientist and one of the authors.

Invasive survivors

The publication not only lists the prime vulnerable species but also records acclimatisation and dominance of certain species like the Himaylayan sorrel (Rumex nepalensis), which has not only become dominant but also crowded out certain alpine medicinal herbs because of its invasive nature.

“Today, the species is literally found in every Himalayan valley of the western Himalayas. Its acclimatisation and dominance in the alpine zone indicates changing alpine micro-climate and vegetation,” the publication states.

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S.S. Dash, senior BSI scientist, who has also contributed to the publication, added that the upward movement of some of these species and the expansion of other invasive species not only highlights their adaptability but also indicates change in the microclimatic situation in the region.

Glaciers at risk

Director of BSI A.A. Mao described glaciers as the most fragile ecosystems and said peri-glacial flora were extremely habitat and mirco-climate specific.

“Since ex-situ conservation of such species at lower elevations has been challenging, the most effective way of their protection and sustenance is in situ monitoring and conservation of existing habitats,” Dr. Mao said.

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He added that the publication is an attempt to provide a consolidated database of peri-glacial flora to study occupancy trends and habitat changes and also to select species for molecular and phytochemical screening.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 2:48:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/climb-or-die-himalayan-plants-on-steep-trek-to-survive-climate-change/article32206679.ece

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