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Frontiers of Biogeography

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High-elevation limits and the ecology of high-elevation vascular plants: legacies from Alexander von Humboldt


Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland in their Essay on the Geography of Plants discuss what was known in 1807 about the elevational limits of vascular plants in the Andes, North America, and the European Alps and suggest what factors might influence these upper elevational limits. Here, in light of current knowledge and techniques, I consider which species are thought to be the highest vascular plants in twenty mountain areas and two polar regions on Earth. I review how one can try to compare elevational limits in different parts of Earth. I discuss recent advances in high-elevation plant ecology that would surely have fascinated von Humboldt such as the special snow-roots in some snow-bed plants and the coldest place on Earth where a vascular plant is growing. I briefly outline an ignored von Humboldt legacy, Mendelssohn’s Humboldt Cantata. In conclusion I summarise the foundations and legacies that von Humboldt created for global high-elevation ecology and biogeography.

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