This species of salticid spider was found on snow slopes on Everest. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Aeolian” sounds like the name of a distant solar system from a Star Wars movie, doesn’t it? Alas, it is a real word, one used to describe the geological influences formed by wind. Dunes at the beach or in the desert are obvious examples of an aeolian geology.

1529675I recently read about the discovery of aeolian ecosystems in Wind: How the Flow of Air Has Shaped Life, Myth and the Land by Jan DeBlieu. These aeolian ecosystems include terrestrial, aquatic, and nival land types. Nival (pronounced ˈnīvəl) being of, pertaining to, or characteristic of perpetual snow (how about that for some new words for our vocabulary?!?).

Therefore, the aeolian biome is that of the snow-locked. This word was coined by biologist Lawrence Swan after numerous trips on foot exploring the Himalayans after World War II. Swan wondered about a population of salticid spiders he found inhabiting Mount Everest at an elevation of 22,000 feet. What could these spiders be surviving on four miles above sea level? After some literal digging around, under and in the rocks and crevices at this elevation, he found pieces of plants, pollen, seeds, and bits of insects that provided a food source for the spiders. These sources of food could have only arrived here carried by the strong winds that moved across the harsh region.

This aeolian biome – named for Aelous, the Greek god of wind – exists in the most oxygen deprived landscapes on earth. This biome exists just above the tundra zone within isolated areas where wind currents blow with such speed and force, it delivers with it algae and insects. Aeolian areas can turn green or pink from the accumulation of wind swept microscopic life, and are characterized by non-flowering plants, such as mosses, that in turn attract hardy scavengers like the salticid spider and specialized worms that can survive in this harsh environment. Lizards, salamanders, rattlesnakes and some birds then feed on those smaller scavengers.

It’s interesting imagining a landscape so inhospitable – severe cold temperatures, strong winds, without apparent vegetation even above a barren tundra landscape – where life still finds a way to survive. The resiliency of some species to scrape out life in these conditions can only be considered awe-inspiring.

More information here.


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