The GMBA Mountain Portal – towards a global map of mountain biodiversity.

Authors: Davnah Payne, Ajay Ranipeta, Michelle Duong, Markus Fischer, Walter Jetz, Jeremy Malczyk, Eva Spehn, Christian Koerner

Conference paper


Knowledge about the spatial distribution of species is a prerequisite for understanding many ecological and evolutionary processes, managing biodiversity in a sustainable manner, and devising policy-relevant scenarios for the future. Such knowledge is particularly relevant for mountain ecosystems, which are both extraordinarily rich and important in the biodiversity they host and the ecosystem services they support and extraordinarily fragile and at risk. Yet, whereas spatially explicit global biodiversity information is already orders of magnitude coarser than geographically-structured environmental data, mountain biodiversity data are even more scattered. Accordingly, regional and global assessments of mountain biodiversity are lacking and limited progress has been achieved in understanding spatial and temporal patterns in species richness and the contribution of space, evolutionary history, and (a)biotic processes as drivers of biodiversity, and in predicting habitat shifts and extinction risks under global change. Assessing mountain biodiversity is one of the priorities of the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) network, a core project of Future Earth and a platform for international and cross-disciplinary collaboration on the assessment, conservation, and sustainable use of mountain biodiversity. Here we present the GMBA Mountain Portal powered by Map of Life, a state-of-the-art web portal for mountain biodiversity data mobilization, query, visualization, and analysis. We argue that the pro-active use of this portal by scientists, stakeholders and policy makers can greatly contribute to progress in mountain biodiversity science and management. We illustrate its functionality with a first assessment of the biodiversity data currently available for the mountains of the world.


Knowledge on the spatial distribution of species on earth is a prerequisite for our understanding of the many ecological and evolutionary mechanisms and processes that brought about the existing biodiversity and are determining its response to global change. Additionally, geographic data on the distribution of species are crucial to governments, agencies, and other stakeholders for the development of effective policies regarding land management, sustainable use of biological resources, and the conservation of biodiversity; for the elaboration of sustainable management approaches that account for socio-economic factors; and for meaningful predictions of future patterns and trends. Such data thus provide a crucial intersection between the biological sciences and a diverse set of other disciplines ranging from economy to social sciences. Yet, although species distribution information is important, it is scarce and orders of magnitude coarser in spatial resolution than almost all other important environmental information such as land cover or climatic variables (Jetz et al., 2012).

General observations on the state of biodiversity data at large apply also to mountains. Yet, publicly available data on standing biodiversity in mountains worldwide is likely to be even scarcer than elsewhere. In view of the exposure of mountain biomes and mountain biodiversity to climate change and of the many ecosystem services they support, this observation is somewhat alarming. Possible reasons for the limited availability of mountain biodiversity data include the difficulty to reach many mountainous cites, the uniqueness of certain observations which adds to the reluctance of sharing geographically accurate point data, and the lack of an easy-to-access and easy-to-use platform to share new data and browse existing ones, localize specific species, and visualize species ranges and distributions.

Here we describe the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) Mountain Portal (, developed as a new branch of the Map of Life global biodiversity web portal (; Jetz et al., 2012). The portal enables the exploration of both the physiography and the biodiversity of mountain systems worldwide. To illustrate its functionality, we summarize results of a first assessment of the biodiversity data currently available for the mountains of the world.


The Mountain Portal uses several layers of information that are superimposed to a map of the world. The first is a ruggedness filter to identify pixels that are attributable to mountainous terrain (mountains). Mountains are defined based on Körner et al. (2011), i.e., based on ruggedness of terrain only, as opposed to ruggedness and elevation as in Kapos et al. (2000). The second is a mountain polygon filter, which consists of the 1004 polygons included in the GMBA mountain gazetteer (Körner et al., 2016). These polygons were drawn manually around confined mountainous terrain (sensu Körner et al. (2011)) on a GIS map. Any mountain terrain is included in a polygon if (1) its name is available in an atlas or online (e.g., on Wikipedia), (2) it covers at least 20 pixels of rugged terrain at a 2.5' resolution (ca. 300 km2; see Körner et al. (2011)), and (3) it features a more or less closed shape. The use of standardized mountain polygons is meant to facilitate regional and global assessments and global comparisons of ecological and socio-economic variables. The third is a species layer, which consists of the biodiversity data available in Map of Life. Additionally each pixel is attributed to one of the seven climatic belts described in Körner et al. (2011), i.e., the nival and alpine belts above and the three montane belts below the potential bioclimatic tree limit (Paulsen and Körner, 2014). The latter enables biodiversity experts to place their assessments in a meaningful bioclimatic context, irrespective of elevation and latitude.

To assess the biodiversity data availability for the mountains of the world we queried the Map of Life data repository for the list of bird, mammal, and amphibian species occurring in each individual polygon and in each thermal belt within polygon.

Results and Discussion

The Mountain Portal is a user-friendly tool for the exploration of mountain physiography and biodiversity and a platform for sharing data of all kinds. In addition to the ruggedness filter, the polygon-based mountain inventory of the world and the climatic belts are unique information layers that allow users to search and mine geo-referenced mountain biodiversity data bases globally and explore functional niches and climatic range limits. Powerful computational tools allow users to retrieve various types of information for each grid point, polygon, mountain range or climatic belt, including land area statistics, and species lists for birds, mammals and amphibians (so far), and to seamlessly upload novel data sets under various clearly defined user rights conditions.

Our preliminary assessment of the biodiversity data available for the mountains of the world allowed us to confirm the legitimate prediction that data coverage for polygons in Africa and South America is considerably worse than for other regions of the world such as Europe and North America. However this first assessment is based on the data currently available in Map of Life, which is most likely only a small fraction of the mountain biodiversity data that actually exist. Whereas technical challenges remain in developing robust methods to integrate very heterogeneous data types and in intersecting biodiversity data with location or biome-specific filters, the major challenge is the mobilization of data. Therefore, we herewith encourage the worldwide biodiversity community to share available data and thereby contribute to the sustainability and the enhancement of an interactive tool of great value for the mountain biodiversity community at large. With increasingly more data generated by citizen science programs and crowdsourcing, there are reasons to believe that knowledge and data gaps may gradually be filled also for mountain habitats, opening the avenue for considerable progress in science and management.

Conclusion & Relevance for Sustainability Research

Taken together, the ruggedness data, the climatic belt layer, and the biodiversity data represent valuable information for the exploration of mountain biodiversity. Yet the plus-value of the Mountain Portal resides in the fact that the information, tools, and features already available, including the very intuitive combination and visualization of various information layers, can be readily applied for policy-relevant tasks such as the identification of mountain-specific indicators for use in biodiversity assessments including those performed under the auspice of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) or the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), or in view of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Additionally, when combined with additional data layers ranging from biomass to demography, the information available in the Mountain Portal allows for a multitude of policy-relevant questions at the intersection between biology and other disciplines to be identified and tackled and for developing models and scenarios for the future. Hence, whereas the Mountain Portal can be used to address basic eco-evolutionary research questions and serve as a platform for data sharing, it also serves to facilitate the dialogue between researchers, policy-maker, and stakeholders, and the bottom-up involvement in research efforts by offering a suite of user-friendly tools to interact with, visualize, and exploit data.


The author would like to thank the Swiss National Science Foundation for financial support (Grant 31FI30_159677).

Competing Interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


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