19 September 2016
Europe is famed for its mountain ranges and the culture surrounding them. The Alps in particular attract around 120 million visitors every year who come to take in the landscape, traditions, wildlife. We’ve already looked at the history of the Alps and its climate, now it’s time to look at Alpine plants and animals.
Plants and vegetation
The Alps are home to many kinds of plants, many of them specific to the area. Full, colourful meadows are rich with wild flowers and dense forests in the lower regions are home to many species of deciduous trees.
In the higher regions, evergreens like spruce, pine and fir trees thrive and when climbing higher still, at around 1700m/2000m alpine meadows, mosses, shrubs and unique flowers like the edelweiss are commonplace. In the highest plains intricate rock gardens nestle between moonscape boulder fields.
Rarer species such as the lady slipper orchid can be found in the Alps and many flower species that can be found across the world have their own Alpine twist due the soil or affecting climate.
Animals specific to the Alps have had to evolve to adjust to the harsh Alpine climate it is thought that there’s at least 30,000 animal species including 80 types of mammals and 200 species of birds. Thicker coats, hibernation patterns and specific diets have all come about due to the high altitude and harsh winters.
Ungulates: Chamois are native to Europe and thrive in the rocky Alpine environment. They are somewhere between a mountain goat and antelope with a thick coat that changes from brown in summer to grey in winter. They are easily recognisable short, curved horns, white face with black markings and a black stripe along its backbone. Chamois are protected by law.
Ibex are well suited to navigating steep rock faces and lives above the tree line. They can have long curved horns which made them a popular target for hunters in the early 19th century. They were brought to the point of extinction during this time but now there are tens of thousands of them in the Alps. In the winter months Ibex move to lower ground.
Rodents: Marmots are the most well-associated rodents with the Alpine environment. This squirrel/guinea pig-like rodent can weigh up to 14 pounds measure more than 2 feet long at times. They emerge in spring after hibernating in the winter months. During the winter they wake up intermittently to feed from specialized stores within their burrows. They live in family groups and are very territorial. The family territory is unlikely to change throughout their lifetime and their intricate burrow systems even include nurseries for young and waste elimination areas. They can be heard from long distances letting out short sharp squeaks that serve as a warning of predators or other dangers. They have look-outs in a very similar way to Meer cats.
Invertebrates: There are 30,000 animal species in the Alps, 20,000 of which are invertebrates. There are many types of spiders and beetles at high altitude despite the harsh climate and lower down butterflies and moths can be found in great numbers in the flower meadows. Even the hardy snow flea enjoys the iciest parts of the Alps.
Birds: 200 species of bird can be found in the Alps another 200 species again pass through in migration. Golden Eagles, Vultures, buzzards and hawks all patrol the skies. Friendly mountain chuffs join walkers and climbers on the highest peaks and the Wallcreeper’s vivid red wings flit about the rocky canyons and cliffs at high altitudes.
Amphibians and Reptiles: The Alps are home to fifteen types of reptiles and 21 amphibians. The Alpine salamander prefers humid, grassy or wooded areas and will come out after rainfall or at night. It also hibernates however so may not be easily spotted. It excretes a toxic liquid so mustn’t be touched. Many species of snakes, lizards, newts, toads and frogs can also be seen.
Carnivores: In the late 19th century the Lynx became extinct in the Alps due to vanishing food sources and hunters. It was reintroduced to the region in the late 20th century, but is still sparse and in need of close monitoring. Other reintroduction programmers include that of wolves and bears.
Some of the Alps highest and most well-known peaks:
- Mont Blanc 4809m
- Matterhorn 4478m
- Jungfrau 4158m
- Ortler 3905m
- Gran Paradiso 4061m
- Finsteraarhorn 4274
- Eiger 3070m
- Weisshorn 4406m
- Grossglockner 3798m
For more on the Alps, download our guide here, our Alps infographic here or visit our Alps landing page here.