Humboldt Enigma


The eastern Himalayas are cited as an example where climate dissimilarity and diverse geological composition contribute to high biodiversity.

Humboldt Enigma

The “Humboldt enigma” is a fascinating puzzle in the field of biogeography, named after the renowned naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. It refers to the observed discrepancy between traditional explanations for biodiversity patterns and the reality of mountain ecosystems.

Traditional Explanations:

  • Tropical diversity: Traditionally, scientists believed that biodiversity peaked in the tropics due to higher solar energy and more stable climates, leading to greater primary productivity and more ecological niches.
  • Latitudinal gradient: They also expected biodiversity to decline with increasing distance from the equator, as temperatures and sunlight decrease.

The enigma:

  • Mountain hotspots: However, mountain ranges, even those outside the tropics, often defy this pattern. They harbor an astonishingly high number of species, many found nowhere else on Earth. This is particularly true for tropical mountains like the Andes and Himalayas.
  • Explaining the exception: This pattern contradicts the traditional explanations and poses a challenge to our understanding of what drives biodiversity.

Possible explanations:

  • Topography and climate: Some believe the complex topography and diverse climates of mountains create a wider range of habitats and microclimates, promoting diversification and species coexistence.
  • Geological history: Others point to the unique geological history of mountains, with uplift and erosion creating new habitats and isolating populations, leading to speciation.
  • Island-like effects: High-altitude ecosystems can act like “sky islands,” isolated from surrounding lowlands, facilitating unique evolutionary trajectories.


  • Understanding the Humboldt enigma is crucial for conservation efforts, as it helps us identify and protect areas with exceptional biodiversity.
  • It also sheds light on the complex interplay of factors that shape the distribution of life on Earth, with mountains playing a vital role beyond simply providing scenic landscapes.