October 3, 2013

Some Flora and Fauna in the Alpine Rockies

This summer I posted about our June trip to Colorado and illustrated foothill and montane habitats of the Rockies. Sadly, most, if not all, of the trails that we were on when we shot those photos were badly damaged by the recent flooding. Soils in the mountains are very thin, and with torrential rains over several days they gave way in many places, leaving trails blocked by debris and badly eroded. The trails in the foothills and on the east side of the mountains in the flood-stricken areas have been closed while their safety was evaluated and repairs made. Fortunately they are gradually re-opening. This certainly is an extreme illustration of the power of natural forces.

Now, though, it is time illustrate what goes on in the alpine areas! Fortunately, it is not necessary to hike all the way up there; a few amazing paved roads give access to the high country. Two that we drove on our most recent trip were the road up Mt. Evans, and Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Plants and animals have to be pretty darn tough to thrive above 9000 feet. It goes without saying that alpine areas are typically very cold and have quite a short growing season, but adaptations are also needed for dry conditions that come about because water runs off the mountains very quickly, alpine soils often have very little ability to hold water, and the air is quite dry with nearly constant wind. This results in many plants having thick, succulent leaves; others grow quite close to the ground to keep them out of the wind. Some have pigments to withstand the high levels of ultraviolet light that occur at alpine elevations, and some conserve moisture and heat by being quite hairy.

Trees occur at lower alpine elevations, and are nearly all conifers which are able to easily shed snow. Since they retain needles all year they are able to begin photosynthesizing as soon as the temperature is above freezing. One example of this is the Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata):

Despite the harsh conditions in which they live, these trees are among the longest lived organisms on earth. Their longevity can be attributed to the fact that that their wood is extremely tough and is resistant to insects and most fungal disease. Note that the branches of the tree on the left side in the photo are all on one side. This is called "flagging" and is caused by the tree limbs only growing in the direction of the prevailing winds. 

Above tree line, conditions are especially harsh:

The rocky foreground of this picture looks nearly barren, but in fact it is full of beautiful wildflowers:

On the left is Fairy Primrose (Primula angustifolia) and on the right is the intense blue of Alpine Forget-me-not (Eritrichum aretioides). The thick, hairy silvery-green leaves of the forget-me-not are ideally suited to the harsh alpine conditions. It is one of the first tundra flowers to bloom in the summer. 

Speaking of hairy plants, check out this Alpine or Frosty Ball Thistle (Circium scopulorum):

Again, the hairs provide a great deal of protection at high elevation. Another hairy plant is the Alpine Sunflower (Rydbergia grandiflora):

This plant's flower heads always face east, away from the prevailing wind. It is also called "Old Man of the Mountain".

Here is one of the most unusual and lovely alpine flowers, the Purple Fringe or Silky Phacelia (Phacelia sericea). Many tiny purple flowers are packed along the stem, and it occurs in dry, exposed areas but needs some shelter, such as these rocks, in the tundra.

Succulent leaves are another adaptation to the dry alpine environment. Here are two that look similar and both are members of the stonecrop family; the first is called King's Crown (Rhodiola integrifolia) and the second is called Queen's Crown (Clementsia rhodantha).

One of the coolest succulent plants is the Alpine Spring Beauty (Claytonia megarhiza).

It is in the same genus as the Spring Beauty that is quite common in Ohio and the flowers are similar but the rest of the plant is quite different! In addition to the succulent leaves, this plant has a very long taproot which enables it to withstand the dry, harsh conditions at high elevations.

A couple of other plants with similar-looking cousins in Ohio are the Alpine Dwarf Columbine (Aquilegia saximontana)

and Lanceleaf Chiming Bells (Mertensia lanceolata).

One of the most iconic alpine wildflowers is Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum).

It is in the same genus as Jacob's Ladder (Polemonium reptans) which is a fairly delicate Ohio woodland wildflower.

A few birds are able to survive at these high elevations. Here is an American Pipit on a receding snowfield in a high alpine area; while they breed on the tundra we often see them in migration in Ohio:

One of the most sought-after birds in the Colorado Rockies is the White-tailed Ptarmigan. They are not all that uncommon but they are very hard to see. They become completely white in the winter, and then change to a mottled plumage as the snow melts. Unless you see them move they are almost impossible to spot:

Mammals are not too common at high elevations, but there are a variety of rodents that live here such as this Yellow-Bellied Marmot:

Mountain goats were introduced to the Colorado Rockies in the 1940s; a small herd is often visible on Mt. Evans:

Mountain goats mainly stay in the high mountains all year; they rarely go below treeline. 

Very few places on our planet are lifeless--even under harsh conditions specialized plants and animals are able to thrive. These are just a few examples of the life that flourishes at high elevation in the Colorado Rockies.


  1. I loved this piece that included flowers, birds, and mammals. Your photos are gorgeous as always. Did you have to get down on your hands & knees to see some of the flowers?

  2. Thank you for sharing your view of the world with us. Beautiful pictures and prose. You are so good at this!

  3. Thanks, Judy for your comment!!

  4. Susan--thanks for your comment! Yes, some of the alpine flowers are so small that you do have to bend down to see them well, or do as we do--use binoculars that focus pretty close! Many desert flowers are that small too--in California they were called "belly flowers"!