In the spring of 2019, Tracy Simon was up at night hearing a deep roar from cracking ice. The iceberg on which she slept at the foot of Mount Everest was moving under her tent.
Simon, a molecular biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, spent three weeks on the iceberg. She wanted to gain insight into the biodiversity of one of the most extreme locations on Earth – a mountain more than eight thousand meters high, where it regularly freezes, oxygen is limited and fierce storms erupt.
But despite that harsh environment, the world’s highest peak is bursting with life. On the south side of Everest alone, Simon and her team found 16 percent of the order of taxonomy — the order that includes species, genera, and families. The researchers recently published their findings in the journal iScience.
“You feel so small when you go up into the mountains,” Simon says. “You can’t imagine that.”
She adds that most climbers are unaware of the wealth of life around them. (Read more about the team that climbed Everest to unravel the mountain’s greatest mystery.)
Everest Base Camp is located on the Khumbu Glacier. Simon and her team spent some research time there, in tents next to those who wanted to climb to the top. The 40,000 people who populate the colorful tent group each year represent a potential disruption to the mountain ecosystem, according to co-author and atmospheric researcher Anton Simon of Appalachian State University, who is also a National Geographic Explorer.
In addition to all visitors, climate change also affects the mountain. This is why researchers want a basic measurement of biodiversity in this area. Using knowledge about current life forms on Everest, scientists can track changes that will occur in the future.
“It was a great experience and a privilege to be involved in the project,” says Anton, who is married to Simon.
Searching for life in melt water
The team traveled to Everest as part of the Perpetual Planet, a partnership between the National Geographic Society and Rolex to explore the Earth’s forests, oceans, and mountains. In addition to researching biodiversity, other teams have established new weather stations and collected ice cores. They, like most researchers and climbers on Everest, were helped by a team of Sherpas who carried equipment, maintained camp and took scientists through the mountains.
Simon searched for signs of life by collecting DNA from pools of deicing water. It was all alive, secreting eDNA (environmental DNA) into air, water, and soil. Scientists can compare parts of unknown eDNA with existing data to see which organism it comes from, just as librarians know something about a book of barcodes. (Read how eDNA reveals the secrets of animal life.)
The researchers focused on the highest lakes and streams on Everest, in the area between 4,400 and 5,400 meters and above. The team extracted about twenty liters of water from ten bodies of water in the Khumbu region. They found 187 orders in it, which is about one sixth of all orders on Earth.
Order is a taxonomic classification that allows scientists to map the distant relationships of organisms. For example, people can be categorized as to turn down (sex, or gender) and sane (species), but it also falls within the family Hominidae and the order Primates, which also includes lemurs and monkeys.
In some cases, researchers have been able to identify organisms more specifically, at the genus level. But due to the paucity of data on the inhabitants of Everest, there was often insufficient information to determine the exact origin of DNA.
According to Simon, little research has been done on the ecosystem of Everest and other high mountains. (Read how Mount Everest rose more than half a meter.)
“Even three percent of the Earth’s mass is no more than 4,400 metres,” she says. “It was great to find such great biodiversity out there.”
Take a closer look at Everest
It turns out that among the organisms that swim, fly and feed around Everest, there were also tardigrades and rotifers. These two types of microscopic animals that cannot be eliminated can survive in space. Butterflies, mayo butterflies, and other flying insects have also been found, as well as many fungi, bacteria and plants.
“It’s the highest peak in the world, and it’s very hard to get to,” says biologist Kristin Baumann of Denmark’s Københavns Universitet, who studies airborne eDNA and was not involved in the study. According to her, the study shows that research into biodiversity does not always require an entire team of taxonomists. Sometimes this can be done in a simpler and more effective way, even in extreme conditions. (Learn which animals thrive in the harsh conditions in the mountains.)
Additional research will contribute to a better overview of the diversity of Everest and will make it possible to record specific objects. If such surveys are conducted in different seasons, they may yield more discoveries, showing the genera and species that live on the mountain in different climatic conditions.
Now that you’ve made a baseline measurement, Seimon wants to compare this data with data that will be collected in the future. The focus is on recording the effects of climate change on the biodiversity of Everest. The researchers’ work could be useful in future investigations and pave the way for further research on the surface of the world.
The National Geographic SocietyCommitted to highlighting and protecting the wonders of our world, she supported the work of biologist Tracy Simon and Explorer Anton Simon As part of Perpetual Planet, National Geographic, and Rolex’s Everest Expedition in 2019. Read more about The Society’s Support for Explorers.