New study unravels the ecological mysteries of Western Ghats rock outcrops and their vital role in understanding climate resilience

Vegetation on rock outcrops in the Western Ghats which are primarily dependent on the elevation of the area as a proxy for climate variables (like temperature and precipitation) and distance from the sea bear crucial relevance in the context of global warming, according to a new study. The research validates that the elevation and proximity to the sea has played a crucial role in shaping the diversity of the plateau and underscores the urgent need for the conservation of these unique habitats, which have often been overlooked in previous conservation efforts.

Rock outcrops are landscapes with a major proportion of their area as exposed bedrock protruding above the soil due to weathering. These terrains are characterized by seasonal water availability, sparse soil coverage, limited nutrient resources, and harsh exposure to wind and solar radiation. The plants inhabiting these environments have developed remarkable survival mechanisms, adapted to thrive in high temperatures and periods of water scarcity. Within the biodiverse Western Ghats of India, a global biodiversity hotspot, numerous outcrops, including lateritic plateaus, basalt mesas, and vertical basalt cliffs, can be found, categorized by their elevation and bedrock type (basalt or laterite).

Over the past decade, Agharkar Research Institute (ARI) has been investigating these outcrops to understand ecological complexities of the seasonal vegetation associated with the rock outcrops for over last decade.

A team of scientists from ARI, an autonomous institute of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) explored the intricate relationship between vegetation and the environment on rock outcrops spanning two elevation zones: high elevation plateaus atop the Western Ghats summits and low elevation plateaus in the Konkan region, a narrow coastal strip nestled between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats. The study, based on samples collected from 30 sites in the Konkan and Western Ghats, underscores the pivotal role of elevation, proxy for climatic variables such as temperature and precipitation, in addition to proximity to the sea, in shaping the plant diversity of these plateaus.  

The study was published recently in 'Plant Diversity & Ecology, a Taylor & Francis publishing house Journal. The research led by Dr. Mandar Datar along with Dr. Aboli Kulkarni, Bhushan Shigwan and Smrithy Vijayan, fellows at the Institute in collaboration with Dr. Rohan Shetti, an ecologist based at Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Czech Republic bear crucial relevance in the context of global warming.

As rock outcrops harbor specialized species adapted to extreme climatic conditions, they serve as ideal model systems for studying vegetation responses to ongoing climate change.

For further details, Dr. M. N. Datar (mndatar[at]aripune[dot]org), the corresponding author of the study, can be contacted.

Publication link: DOI: 10.1080/17550874.2023.2255999

ecological mysteries