Alpine Ecosystems in the Northwest Caucasus, edited by Vladimir G. Onipchenko. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2004. xx + 407 pp. €175.00, US$183.50. ISBN 1-4020-2382-0.
This volume contains the main results of 20 years of fieldwork in the northwest Caucasus. More than 250 people were involved in a research program based on scientific monitoring within the Teberda State Reserve in the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous County. Political changes, long-term monitoring techniques, problems of funding extensive field research campaigns, the lack of appropriate publishing capacities in Russia—there are many reasons for the delay of this publication. Nonetheless it can serve as a solid basis for further research and monitoring in alpine environments; in some respects, it has an exemplary character.
The book combines a comprehensive overview with the results of indepth research. It begins with a short introduction of the region's natural conditions before it goes into more detail, analyzing soil and nutrient turnover, the alpine plant communities and their structure and dynamics, and the population biology of alpine plants. Most investigations were made on small but representative plots. The program concentrated on four alpine communities that stand for a broad variety of the Caucasian vegetation and ecosystems: alpine lichen heath, Festuca varia grassland, Geranium-Hedysarum meadow, and snow bed community. Research comprised morphological analysis of the communities, vegetative propagation experiments, the calculation of biomass and production, and analysis of spatial structure within the vegetation communities, along with relationships between soil and plants. Moreover, it considered seasonal and long-term dynamics, including Holocene history. A broad spectrum of sophisticated measurement methods were applied, such as in-situ estimations of biomass production and approaches using similarity indices and pollen analysis. Special attention is given to the role of fungi, mycorrhiza, and microbiological processes. Thus, the volume can also serve as a methodological handbook for comparable studies in other mountain environments, and may provide valuable suggestions for international networking aiming to establish comparable standards for the monitoring of mountain ecosystems.
Unfortunately, the topics of wild fauna and human impacts on natural ecosystems are only marginally addressed. The final chapter, which discusses human activities and nature conservation problems, offers rather limited information about the historical development of the Teberda State Reserve since its designation in 1935 and the impacts of livestock grazing and conservation activities on the ecosystems. Far-reaching conflicts between different recent land users such as hikers, nature conservationists, winter sport managers, and tourism developers are neglected. The cable railway which provides access to Mussa Atchara Mountain, organized hiking tours throughout the reserve, and construction in Dombay—which did not end with the Soviet system—may exert negative influences on the ecosystems, but the publication does not explain the interrelationships between the natural and the societal system. In this respect, more interdisciplinary research is needed.
The list of references includes about 800 publications in Russian and in Western languages, providing a very valuable bibliography on mountain ecosystems in the Caucasus and in comparable regions. Regrettably, the Russian publications are only cited in English translation, not with the original Russian title. This may make access to some of them more difficult. Despite these minor critical remarks, the volume may be recommended for all interested in the Caucasus and in high mountain ecology in general, as it presents a rich diversity of scientific approaches to the study of relevant topics.