Diversity on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is a highly diverse environment. Towering over Southwestern China, it has an average elevation of 4000 metres,  and surrounded by high mountain ranges it is often known as the ‘third pole of the Earth’.

The plateau harbours the highest alpine and endemic plant diversity in the world. With more than 12,000 seed plant species and more than 5000 of them endemic to the area, the diversity has been influenced by climatic changes and terrain uplift.

“We’re talking about an alpine chunk of the Asian continent that covers roughly the same area as Western Australia, but with about 20% more plant species and five times more of those found nowhere else in the world,” says Dr David Deane, a researcher and DECRA Fellow from the Centre for Future Landscapes at La Trobe University.

“The vast alpine grasslands also support a variety of endemic animal species, like Tibetan Gazelles and the Wild Yak. This high endemicity is why understanding the distribution and origin of plant species diversity is crucial to the proper management of the environment.”

Dr Deane has been working with a team led by Dr Haibin Yu, a researcher at the School of Life Sciences of Guangzhou University, across a number of projects to understand the origins of the diversity and endemicity of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau plant species and how best to preserve it.

“Most of our understanding of these environments is reliant upon information about species richness.” says Dr Yu. “While this is an important indicator we know a lot less about the correlation with other measures of biodiversity, nor how these diversity patterns arise from the unique climate, topography and historical factors found on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.”

Dr Yu has compiled an extensive dataset of seed plant species of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau region covering a wide range of frequency and distribution characteristics, along with topographic, climatic and other environmental variables. By analysing these using a 50km x 50km grid system his team can highlight trends such as genetic hotspots and gaps in conservation management strategy.

The research has identified species-rich areas of the plateau which were previously unrecognised, nine of which were not adequately covered or protected by nature reserves.

“Our research is the first to compare the diversity of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau across taxonomic, endemic and phylogenetic factors,” says Dr Yu. “This is important, as we have been able to identify clear gaps in the regional conservation strategy.”

“There’s an incredible amount of diversity on the plateau, and a lot we still need to find out,” says Dr Deane. “It also doesn’t respect national or administrative boundaries. The more information we have on the plant diversity of this environment the better equipped countries will be to manage and preserve these ecosystems, which are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of global change.”