What is it about?

The topography of mountain ranges is shaped by the erosion of their slopes. Because water is the most important agent of erosion on Earth, it has been established that climate affects the shape and structure of entire mountain ranges. Because vegetation protects the slopes from erosion, it should also shape mountain ranges. This is evidenced here in a case where different types of vegetation grow on ridges and valleys, with different ground cover and protection. It is a positive feedback, where valleys erode faster than ridges. As a result, the topography sharpen, and the segregation of vegetation according to topography increases.

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Why is it important?

Although theoretically obvious, the effect of vegetation on the erosion and shaping of mountain ranges is hard to discriminate from the effect of variations in climate, because both tend to evolve together across landscapes. Here, we use a case where there is no variation in climate to evidence the specific import of vegetation, at a scale of a few hundreds of meters. This is an important step in evidencing the specific contribution of life to the shaping of mountains.


The discovery of the feedback described here was made in the field, through several years of observation of systematic changes in vegetation, soils, and landforms across that old-growth tropical forest. At most places, this primary relationships between vegetation and topography have been effaced by destruction of the primary forest and of its soils. It seems, therefore, that some landscapes could still bear the hallmark of this coupling between vegetation, soil, and landforms, even though this coupling has vanished.

Gilles Brocard
University of Lyon 2

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Shaping of topography by topographically-controlled vegetation in tropical montane rainforest, PLoS ONE, March 2023, PLOS, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0281835.
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