It takes a lot of guts to scale the highest mountains on Earth, but an intrepid bunch of animals makes living so far up seem like a cakewalk. These daredevils thrive in the world’s most isolated, inhospitable places, such as the rocky ranges of the Andes and the Himalayas. Parts of these regions also double as centers of biodiversity.
Freezing temperatures, low oxygen levels and meager resources don’t stop animals from leading healthy lives in the highest altitudes. Here are 6 species that epitomize the extreme feats of the animal kingdom:
1. Yellow-Rumped Leaf-Eared Mouse
Credit: (Leonidas Gustavo/Shutterstock)
The undisputed champion of extreme heights — at least, for now — is a tiny rodent that lives in the Andes Mountains. It received this distinction in 2020, when a biologist from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln caught one scurrying along the summit of Llullaillaco, the second highest active volcano in the world at 22,110 feet above sea level.
This chance encounter led the Yellow-Rumped Leaf-Eared Mouse to be crowned the highest-living mammal ever recorded. It has also ushered in a flurry of questions about the diet, adaptations and evolutionary history of the species.
With scarce food in this habitat, the mouse likely only has lichens and the occasional insect to eat. To compensate for low oxygen levels, it may be capable of producing more efficient hemoglobin, a protein in the blood that delivers oxygen to the lungs. Adding fuel to this mouse’s mystery, other members of the same species can be found all the way down to sea level. Why would it wander up so high, then? Researchers hope to find answers in subsequent research trips.
2. Large-Eared Pika
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The Large-Eared Pika, another endearing mammal, deserves just as much recognition in this category. This species can be found in mountainous regions of Central Asia, hiding in crevices throughout rocky cliff sides. It lives at altitudes as low as 7,500 feet and upwards of 20,000 feet in the Himalayas. Like other pikas, it eats grass, twigs, moss, and lichen.
From the U.S. West Coast to Central Asia, pikas — relatives of rabbits and hares — will soon be on the move due to climate change; they are sensitive to heat, so as global temperatures rise, lower-altitude pikas will climb higher to cool down.
For most animals, migration to higher altitudes would be a major challenge because of hypoxia, which occurs when the body doesn’t get enough oxygen and several functions begin to shut down. Pikas living at higher elevations, such as the large-eared pika, could defend against this because of variation in certain genes. As a result, they produce proteins that allow for more efficient oxygen use.
Fortunately, lower-altitude pikas may be in luck as well. A 2018 study found that they may be able to alter their genes to increase the production of proteins that help them survive in environments where oxygen is limited.
3. Snow Leopard
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The snow leopard will always stand out as a quintessential icon of mountain-dwelling creatures. This feline, scattered throughout Central Asia, commonly lives between 3,000 feet and 17,000 or more.
A closer look at its anatomy shows just how prepared it is for the cold, rugged terrain; a heavy tail helps with balancing on rocks and provides extra warmth when wrapped around its body. Short forelimbs and longer hind limbs help the leopards leap up to 50 feet in length. The leopard’s paws, covered in thick fur, can tread on jagged surfaces and act as perfect snowshoes.
Oddly enough, the snow leopard doesn’t have the same efficient hemoglobins as other high-altitude animals. It shares similar hemoglobins with other big cats and domestic cats, which cannot tolerate low oxygen levels well. Despite this peculiar limitation, it is still able to live in these environments because of large nasal cavities and a strong chest that promotes deeper breaths.
As a famously elusive species, the snow leopard often slips past research efforts. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 70 percent of snow leopard habitat has not been explored. The species faces looming threats of habitat loss and poaching, and has become a compelling symbol for conservation over the years. Most estimates surmise that the current snow leopard population lies somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000.
Read More: Are Snow Leopards Endangered?
The Yak carries an acclaimed reputation as an animal that braves snowy mountain landscapes. Yaks are probably best known for assisting local travelers in the Himalayas, hauling goods and equipment through treacherous mountain passes. While the majority of yaks are domesticated, wild yaks still exist in small groups.
Yaks have prospered in the harsh alpine environment due to numerous features that ward off the cold and assist with breathing. Its thick fleece coat ensures heat conservation, and a lack of functional sweat glands bolsters its cold tolerance.
The yak has a larger heart and lungs than cattle at lower elevations; it triumphs over hypoxia because it has a higher concentration of hemoglobin in its blood stream.
The bovine prefers the cold over the heat for good reason; exposure to lower altitudes, specifically when temperatures reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, could cause it to experience heat exhaustion.
5. Alpine Chough
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True to its name, the alpine chough (or yellow-billed chough) perches high in the mountains from Western Europe, past the Alps and all the way to Central Asia. This high-flying bird in the crow family usually breeds thousands of feet above sea level. It has been observed nesting at 21,300 feet and flying as high as 26,000 feet near Mount Everest.
Climate change could force the alpine chough to new heights in the coming years. One study noted that alpine choughs in the northwestern Italian Alps foraged higher from 2021 to 2022 after a rise in local temperatures. Researchers believed that this could be an attempt to cool off given the bird’s sensitivity to heat as a mountainous species.
6. Himalayan Jumping Spider
The reason that the spider can survive this high up remains somewhat of a mystery, although it is known to eat flies and springtails for nourishment. It appears that any potential adaptations that might provide insight on the spider have yet to be studied extensively.
How Do Humans Compare?
We can’t count out our own species’ feats, even if they don’t quite hold a candle to animals’ mastery of mountains. Several human settlements around the world, mainly in Asia and South America, exist at around 16,000 feet above sea level.
We may not have the same physiological super powers as yaks or pikas, but some people — like the Andean and Tibetan peoples — are naturally poised to succeed in high altitudes as they exhibit genetic adaptation to these environments.
Nevertheless, adventurers who try to ascend the world’s highest peaks will see for themselves the astounding resilience of animals in the toughest of conditions.