Plants above the forest line, for example, have evolved different growth forms that allow them to survive harsh winds and cold winters. Some plants are small and grow in the form of flat cushions, rosettes, or carpets to protect themselves from wind and to resist the pressure of heavy snow layers.
Others have large root structures and ample underground organs that both anchor the plant and act as a storage for water and nutrients. For example, the net-leaved willow (Salix reticulata) barely reaches 10-15 cm in height, but has roots several meters long.
The forests below the timberline are considered relatively natural today and serve as important refuges for rare species as well as corridor areas for many others (e.g., large herbivores or large carnivores).
The Alpine salamander (Salamandra atra), for example, is the only European amphibian to give birth to fully developed young. Birds and mammals have thicker feathers or pelts and their feet or paws are perfectly adapted for treading on snowy surfaces. The mountain hare (Lepus timidus), the stoat (Mustela erminea), and the ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) change their brown coats to white in winter to avoid predation.
Many animals hibernate during the coldest months of the year, including the famous Alpine marmot (Marmota marmota). Others, like the Alpine chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) and rock partridge (Alectoris graeca), migrate over relatively long distances or descend to lower altitudes to avoid the cold of winter. The Alpine ibex (Capra ibex), on the other hand, climbs to very steep slopes where the snow slides off and food can still be found.
In the aquatic world of the Alps, highly specialized species found in small Alpine lakes and glacial streams contribute to a diverse and characteristic freshwater fauna. But the high sensitivity of these organisms to global warming and human activities threatens their survival.
Though typical Alpine animals continue to exist in the Alps, many of their populations have been reduced in size and cut off from each other. After near extinction, the Alpine ibex survived as a small population in Gran Paradiso National Park in the Italian Alps. Individuals from this remnant population have since been re-introduced to other parts of the Alps allowing the species to reclaim much of its Alpine range.
The plight of the three large carnivores in the Alps - the lynx, bear, and wolf - is another example of how close some Alpine mammals have come to being wiped out from the Alpine arc. Fortunately, through policy changes and reintroduction projects, some of these species are making a come-back in the Alps.
Threats to Alpine natureThe natural richness of the Alps is at risk of disappearing. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the major threats to Alpine biodiversity. Spreading settlements, unsustainable farming, road networks, and river dams are the main culprits.