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Climate is vertical . The fauna and flora of an area varies not only with the latitude of a region, but also with its elevation. For example, along the Mississippi River walnut trees and red squirrels flourish on the river’s floodplains; however, gray squirrels and hickory nut trees flourish higher up on ridges above the river. While the distance between the floodplain and the heights of the river’s banks is relatively small, the same vertical ecology occurs around the world. Vertical ecology has significant implications for the niches that are occupied by animals that are specialist feeders like the panda bear, rather than generalist feeders like the raccoon.
Mountain elevations allow different fauna and flora to flourish. In the southern Appalachian Mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia the fauna and flora differ from that of the coastal plains and the Piedmont Region. The high elevations of the Appalachians (over the 4,500-foot, or 1,370-meter, level) have a climate and plants that are more like southern Canada. The higher mountains in New Mexico (Cloudcroft) surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert and Arizona (Chiricahua Mountains) by the Sonoran Desert ecosystem are sometimes called “islands in the sky.” In the summer, extreme temperatures and lack of water are fatal to all but desert plants. However, on the tops of the mountains that reach 7,000-9,000 feet, there are trees, springs, animals, and other plants.
The tepui (mountain plateaus) in Venezuela are another example of unique ecologies. Extremely isolated, each tepui has its own unique set of plants that flourish in its moist environment. Another form of vertical ecology is found in tropical rain forests. The plants on the ground are not the same as those in the canopy. Vertical ecology also occurs in marine ecology. Sea plants, fish, shellfish, and other creatures vary widely with the depths of the water; those in the relative shallows are different from those in ocean depths.
Human beings have long adapted themselves to vertical ecologies of their respective domains. The Apaches in Arizona and New Mexico would spend the colder months of the year in the warmer desert areas and the hot summer in the mountain elevations. The change in location would also allow them greater opportunities for farming, hunting, and fishing. Indigenous people in the Andes Mountains have long practiced agriculture that uses the vertical climate of the region.
Vertical ecological systems are threatened by global warming. As the temperature increases, the warmer ecology advances up the mountainsides; eventually the tops of the mountains may be overrun and alpine fauna and flora may struggle for survival.
- Derek Denniston, High Priorities: Conserving Mountain Ecosystems and Cultures (World-watch Institute, 1995);
- Dettner et al., eds., Vertical Food Web Interactions: Evolutionary Patterns and Driving Forces (Springer-Verlag, 1997);
- Colin Reynolds and Yasunori Watanabe, eds., Vertical Structure in Aquatic Environments and Its Impact on Trophic Linkages and Nutrient Fluxes (E. Schweizerbart’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1992).