Organisms at high altitude

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Alpine Chough in flight

Organisms can exist at high altitude in a habitat, while flying or gliding, or through man-made systems. Many animals have adapted to high altitude life and some have evolved to cope well with the problems of the environment, such as a reduced level of oxygen because of the lower air pressure.


A Yak at around 4790 m (15715 ft) altitude

Some animals inhabit high altitude areas of the planet. Yaks live in the Himalayas at heights of up to 19,000 ft (6,000m), and actually struggle to survive at sea level. Euophrys omnisuperstes is a small jumping spider that lives at heights of up to 6,700m (22,000 feet) on Mount Everest, making it possibly the highest known permanent resident on earth.


Tardigrades occur over the entire world, including the high Himalayas[1] Tardigrades are also able to survive temperatures of close to absolute zero (−273 °C (−459 °F)),[2] temperatures as high as 151 °C (304 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than other animals,[3] and almost a decade without water.[4] Since 2007, tardigrades have also returned alive from studies in which they have been exposed to the vacuum of outer space in low earth orbit.[5][6]

Plants and fungi[edit]

There is a moss that grows at 6480 m (21260 ft) on Mount Everest.[7] It may be the highest altitude plant species.[7]

Flying and gliding[edit]

The highest flying birds are Rüppell's Vultures, Bar-headed Geese, Whooper Swans, Alpine Chough, and Common Cranes, all of which have flown more than 8 km above sea level. In 2008 a colony of bumble bees was discovered on Mount Everest at more than 5,600 metres above sea level, the highest known altitude for an insect. In subsequent tests some of the bees were still able to fly in a flight chamber which recreated the thinner air of 9,000 metres.[8]

Spider ballooning[edit]

Main article: Ballooning (spider)

Ballooning is a term used for the mechanical kiting[9][10] that many spiders, especially small species,[11] as well as certain mites and some caterpillars use to disperse through the air. Some spiders have been detected in atmospheric data balloons collecting air samples at slightly less than 5 km (16000 ft) above sea level.[12] It is the most common way for spiders to invade isolated islands and mountaintops.[13][14]

Space flight[edit]

Main article: Animals in space

Before human spaceflight various animals were launched into space, including monkeys, dogs, and insects, so that scientists could investigate the biological effects of space travel. The United States launched flights containing primate cargo primarily between 1948-1961 with one flight in 1969 and one in 1985. France launched two monkey-carrying flights in 1967. The Soviet Union and Russia launched monkeys between 1983 and 1996.

During the 1950s and 1960s the Soviet space program used a number of dogs for sub-orbital and orbital space flights. Most survived and the few that died were lost mostly through technical failures.

Later, animals and other organisms were also flown to investigate various biological processes and the effects microgravity and spaceflight might have on them. Bioastronautics is an area of bioengineering research which spans the study and support of life in space. Certain functions of organisms are mediated by gravity, such as gravitropism in plant roots, while metabolic energy normally expended in overcoming the force of gravity remains available for other functions. This may take the form of accelerated growth.

In May 2011, tardigrades and other extremophiles were sent into orbit on a Space Shuttle.[15][16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ C.Michael Hogan. 2010. Extremophile. eds. E.Monosson and C.Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and the Environment, washington DC
  2. ^ Becquerel P. (1950). "La suspension de la vie au dessous de 1/20 K absolu par demagnetization adiabatique de l'alun de fer dans le vide les plus eléve". C. R. Hebd. Séances Acad. Sci. Paris 231: 261–263. 
  3. ^ Radiation tolerance in the tardigrade Milnesium tardigradum
  4. ^ Crowe, John H.; Carpenter, John F.; Crowe, Lois M. (October 1998). "The role of vitrification in anhydrobiosis". Annual Review of Physiology 60. pp. 73–103. doi:10.1146/annurev.physiol.60.1.73. PMID 9558455. 
  5. ^ Staff (8 September 2008). "Creature Survives Naked in Space". Retrieved 2011-12-22. 
  6. ^ Mustain, Andrea (22 December 2011). "Weird wildlife: The real land animals of Antarctica". MSNBC. Retrieved 2011-12-22. 
  7. ^ a b High altitude plant/fungus collection
  8. ^ Dillon, M. E.; Dudley, R. (2014). "Surpassing Mt. Everest: extreme flight performance of alpine bumblebees". Biology Letters 10 (2). doi:10.1098/rsbl.2013.0922. 
  9. ^ Flying Spiders over Texas! Coast to Coast. Chad B., Texas State University Undergrad: He correctly describes the mechanical kiting of spider "ballooning".
  10. ^ Artificial and Natural Flight By Hiram Stevens Maxim. Chapter on "Flying Kites", the "Balloon Spider" is correctly seen as mechanical kiting.
  11. ^ Valerio, C.E. (1977). "Population structure in the spider Achaearranea Tepidariorum (Aranae, Theridiidae)". The Journal of Arachnology 3: 185–190. Retrieved 2009-07-18. 
  12. ^ VanDyk, J.K. (2002–2009). "Entomology 201 - Introduction to insects". Department of Entomology, Iowa State University. Retrieved 18 July 2009. 
  13. ^ Hormiga, G. (2002). "Orsonwells, a new genus of giant linyphild spiders (Araneae) from the Hawaiian Islands". Invertebrate Systamatics 16 (3): 369–448. doi:10.1071/IT01026. Retrieved 2009-07-18. 
  14. ^ Bilsing, S.W. (May 1920). "Quantitative studies in the food of spiders". The Ohio Journal of Science 20 (7): 215–260. Retrieved 2009-07-18. 
  15. ^ NASA Staff (2011-05-17). "BIOKon In Space (BIOKIS)". NASA. Retrieved 2011-05-24. 
  16. ^ Brennard, Emma (2011-05-17). "Tardigrades: Water bears in space". BBC. Retrieved 2011-05-24. 
  17. ^ "Tardigrades: Water bears in space". BBC Nature. 2011-05-17.