Global Geological And Climatic Events

What is Humboldt’s Enigma and What does it mean for India?


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Prelims level : Humboldt's Enigma

Mains level : NA

Humboldt’s Enigma


  • The question of where biodiversity is concentrated has intrigued explorers and naturalists for centuries. Humboldt has tried to answer this question.

Humboldt’s Insights

  • Alexander von Humboldt: A polymath of the 18th century, Humboldt recorded diverse natural observations, proposing a relationship between temperature, altitude, humidity, and species distribution.
  • Mountain Exploration: During his exploration of South America, Humboldt studied plant distribution on mountains, noting variations with elevation.
  • Chimborazo Mountain: Humboldt used Chimborazo Mountain in Ecuador as an example, illustrating the concept of mountain diversity.

What is Humboldt’s Enigma?

  • Sun’s Energy: Tropical areas receive more solar energy, fostering greater primary productivity and biodiversity due to the availability of ecological niches.
  • Mountain Exception: Mountains, despite being outside the tropics, have been an exception to the rule, posing Humboldt’s enigma.

Biodiversity Drivers

  • Earth’s History, Geography, and Climate: These factors are the primary drivers of mountain diversity.
  • Geological Processes: Mountains serve as ‘cradles’ for new species due to geological processes like uplifts, creating new habitats.
  • Climatic Stability: Climatologically stable mountains act as ‘museums,’ preserving species over time.
  • Coastal Tropical Sky Islands: Examples like the Shola Sky Islands in the Western Ghats exhibit both cradle and museum characteristics.

Eastern Himalaya: An Anomaly

  • Diversity Beyond Tropics: Eastern Himalaya boasts exceptional diversity, challenging the conventional tropical biodiversity paradigm.
  • Multiple Factors: Climate dissimilarity and geological heterogeneity contribute to high biodiversity.
  • Climate Variability: Different temperature and rainfall levels on the same mountain support diverse biomes.

Unresolved Questions

  • Complexity of Biodiversity: Numerous factors drive diversification and Humboldt’s enigma in different regions, leading to over a hundred hypotheses.
  • Data Limitations: Fine-scale species occurrence data are lacking, hindering precise explanations.
  • Call for Research: India’s under-studied areas need more extensive research, including the use of genetics, to understand true biodiversity.
  • National Initiatives: Programs like the National Mission on Himalayan Studies and Biodiversity need strengthening to support basic research.


  • Humboldt’s enigma represents one facet of mountain biodiversity, offering opportunities for study and insights into global climate and landscape change issues.

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