, Volume 123, Issue 2, pp 193–206 | Cite as

Timberline and alpine vegetation on the tropical and warm-temperate oceanic islands of the world: elevation, structure and floristics

  • Christoph Leuschner


In the oceans of the tropical and warm-temperate zone (40° N–40° S), only a small number of islands are high enough to show timberline and alpine vegetation. Excluding large islands with a more continental climate, only the following oceanic islands are relevant: Pico (Azores), Madeira, Tenerife, Gran Canaria and La Palma (Canary islands), Fogo (Cape Verde islands), Fernando Poo (Bioko) and Tristan da Cunha in the Atlantic Ocean, Réunion and Grande Comore (Ngazidja) in the Indian Ocean, Yakushima (Japan), Maui and Hawaii (Hawaiian islands), and Mas Afuera (Juan Fernandez islands) in the Pacific Ocean. Timberline and alpine vegetation exist here under a unique combination of a highly oceanic climate and a marked geographic isolation which contrasts with the tropical alpine vegetation in the extended mountains of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

This review seeks to identify common physiognomic patterns in the high elevation vegetation that exist despite the fact that the islands belong to different floristic regions of the world. Based on the existing literature as well as personal observation, an overview of the elevation, physiognomy and floristics of the forest (and tree) line and the alpine vegetation on 15 island peaks is given.

The forest line ecosystems are dominated either by conifers (Canary islands, Yakushima), heath woodland (Azores, Madeira, Réunion, Grande Comore, Fernando Poo) or broad-leaved trees (Hawaiian islands, Juan Fernandez islands, Tristan da Cunha). In the subalpine and alpine belts, dry sclerophyllous scrub occurs on island mountains that are exposed to the trade winds (Canary islands, Cape Verde islands, Hawaiian islands, Réunion, Grande Comore). These peaks are more or less arid above the forest line because a temperature inversion restricts the rise of humid air masses further upslope. In the summit regions of the remaining islands, which are located either in the wet equatorial and monsoonal regions or in the temperate westerly zones without an effective inversion layer, mesic to wet vegetation types (such as grassland, alpine heathland and fern scrub) are found.

Compared to mountains at a similar latitude in continental areas, the forest line on the islands is found at 1000 to 2000 m lower elevations. The paper discusses four factors that are thought to contribute to this forest line depression: (1) drought on trade-wind exposed island peaks with stable temperature inversions, (2) the absense of well-adapted high-altitude tree species on isolated islands, (3) immaturity of volcanic soils, and (4) an only small mountain mass effect that influences the vertical temperature gradient.

Key words

Alpine vegetation Azores Canary islands Floristic poverty Hawaii Massenerhebung effect Oceanic islands Réunion Timberline depression Tropical zone 


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christoph Leuschner
    • 1
  1. 1.Lehrstuhl für GeobotanikUniversity of GöttingenGöttingenGermany

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