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Eastern Asia: China and North Korea

The Changbai ("Great White") Mountains consist of low hills that surround an elevated volcanic plateau at the base of the Korean Peninsula. The highest peak rises above 2,600 m and partially surrounds a deep crater lake. This ecoregion supports the most diverse and extensive late-successional conifer forests in northeast China. Due to the isolated character of these high-elevation habitats, the region also supports numerous endemic plant species. Some large predators still survive here, including Siberian tigers, lynx and brown bears.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    36,000 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
These low hills and mountains at the base of the Korean Peninsula support some of the most diverse forest ecosystems in northeast Asia. Two ecoregions occur here. Manchurian Mixed Forests occupy lower elevation hill areas that extend from the northern part of the Korean Peninsula northward through China to the Amur River Basin in the Russian Far East. Changbai Mountains Mixed Forests include the higher elevation mountain regions where forests are dominated by conifers, and the landscape includes alpine meadows and rock slopes. Baiyun (White Cloud), the highest peak in northeast China, is a dormant volcano that reaches an elevation of 2,691 m. Because of its great range in elevation, this ecoregion includes well-defined bioclimatic zones from temperate vegetation in the valleys to alpine tundra on the upper slopes.

The Changbai Mountains consist of low to middle elevation hills that lie southwest to northeast and include a volcanic plateau situated at an elevation over 2,600 m. This upland is the source of several major rivers of the region and supports a distinctive alpine flora.

Climate in the Changbai Mountains is determined by continental influences from interior Asia, predominant during the winter, and monsoon influences from the western Pacific that bring precipitation to this area during the summer. Winters are long, cold and fairly dry with January mean temperatures around -10 to -20°C, depending on elevation. Annual precipitation throughout the region is about 500 to 1,000 mm at the lower to middle elevations and may reach 1,400 mm near the summit. Most precipitation occurs during the summer and fall.

Forests in the Changbai Mountains are the richest in northeast China. Low-elevation areas below 1,100 m support mixed stands of conifers and deciduous broadleaf trees. Conifers include Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis), fir (Abies holophylla), red pine (Pinus densiflora), and Japanese yew (Taxus caspidata ssp. Latifolia). Deciduous broadleaf trees include Mongolian oak (Quercus mongolica), Tilia amurensis, ash (Fraxinus mandschurica), and dwarf birch (Betula ermanii). Plant species with a subtropical affinity also occur in these forests. Examples include woody climbers, native Chinese gooseberry (Actinidia spp.), or kiwi fruit, and "Dutchman’s pipe" (Aristolochia mandshuriensis). These lower elevation forests are similar and transitional to the surrounding Manchurian Mixed Forests ecoregion. Understory vegetation includes economically important, and in some cases much depleted, species such as ginseng (Panax ginseng), Manchurian wild ginger (Asarum heterotropoides), and Gastrodia spp. which is used as an analgesic.

The "dark conifer" forest zone at 1,100 to 1,900 m includes a species-rich assemblage of plants that trace their origins to Siberia, western Eurasia, Japan and the Korean Peninsula. The forest here is cloaked in moss and supports an understory of forbs, grasses, and ferns. At 1,100 to 1,500 m, the forest consists of spruce (Picea jezoensis, P. obovata), fir (Abies nephrolepis), and larch (Larix olgensis). At 1,500 to 1,900 m, the tree diversity declines to stands composed of Picea jezoensis and Abies nephrolepis with a reduced understory and dense moss layer. Subcanopy vegetation in the dark conifer forest includes maple (Acer ukurunduense), birch (Betula castata), mountain ash (Sorbus pohuashanensis), and poplar (Populus ussuriensis).

Alpine elevations support a variety of forb species. Exposed sites support meadow, but in favorable locations where snow protects exposed buds during winter, woody shrubs such as willow (Salix spp.), Vaccinium spp., Rhododendron spp., and dwarf rock birch (Betula ermannii) form a low groundcover.

Biodiversity Features
Changbai Shan Nature Reserve (1,900 km2), on the border of Jilin Province and North Korea, is very important to the conservation of this mountain ecoregion. It was created in 1961 and was designated as a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 1979. Some of the late successional forests in Changbai Shan are of special significance because they remain quite undisturbed. The nature reserve includes Mt. Baiyun, the highest peak in northeast China, and a crater lake that is the deepest in China at 373 m. More than 50 mammal species and 300 bird species have been recorded in Changbai Shan. Mammals include Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris), leopards (Panthera pardus), lynx (Lynx lynx), brown bears (Ursus arctos), Sika deer (Cervus nippon), red deer (C. elaphus), ghoral (Naemorhaedus goral), wild pigs (Sus scropha), otters (Lutra lutra), and sable (Martes zibellina).

Birds include rare species like black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) and hazel grouse (Bonasa bonasia), black stork (Ciconia nigra), Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata), Oriental stork (Ciconia boyciana), and scaly-sided merganser (Merganser squamata).

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Panax ginseng grew in the northeast of China and northern areas of the Korean Peninsula. It was not uncommon in the understory of conifer forests within the Changbai Mountains Mixed Forests ecoregion. Its main habitat was mixed conifer (Pinus koraensis, Abies holophylla) and deciduous broadleaf (Quercus mongolica, Tilia mandshurica) forests. In recent decades, this plant has been greatly reduced due to timber harvesting, wildfire, and collection of the root for medicinal purposes. Today P. ginseng is reported nearly extinct throughout Chinese Manchuria on the Korean Peninsula, although it still occurs in the Changbai Reserve and in forests of the Primorsky Krai area of the Russian Far East. Urgent measures are needed to restore this economically valuable species and to preserve its genetic potential.

Alpine plants of the summit plateau on Mount Baiyun are distinctive and include many endemic species because the Changbai Mountains are the only alpine peaks in this region of Asia.

Current Status

Types and Severity of Threats
In northeast China, logging and hunting are two of the most pervasive threats to biodiversity. In the Changbai Mountains, tourism development is another activity of concern to conservation. All of these activities mean that protected areas in this ecoregion need to have a carefully planned system of buffer zone management, according to (MacKinnon 1996).

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This boundary follows the CVMCC (1979) Vegetation Map of China’s classes of boreal conifers (1 and 2a) and temperate mixed and deciduous forests (6, 13a, and 14a). Within Korea, the boundary follows the sub-arctic conifer forest (D Zone) delineation from the forest vegetation zone map based on thermal climate and elaborated by Yim (1977)(also described in Ching 1991). Forests in this ecoregion are mixed with boreal conifers, predominantly spruce (Picea spp.) and fir (Abies spp.). The overall area corresponds to Davis et al.’s Changbai mountains region (site EA1) and MacKinnon et al.'s (1996) Changbai Mountains classification (subunit 14a) for Mixed Coniferous Northeast China (unit 14). Due to the wide transitional zone between this and adjacent cool-temperate deciduous forests, the boundary for this ecoregion may vary from one author to the next.

Chinese Vegetation Map Compilation Committee. 1979. Vegetation map of China. Map (1:10,000,000). Science Press, Beijing, China.

Kong, W., and D. Watts. 1993. The plant geography of Korea with an emphasis on the alpine zones. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

MacKinnon, J. 1996. Wild China. The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Mackinnon, J., M. Sha, C. Cheung, G. Carey, Z. Xiang, and D. Melville. 1996. A biodiversity review of China. World Wide Fund for Nature, Hong Kong.

Yim, Y. 1977. Distribution of forest vegetation and climate in the Korean Peninsula. Japanese Journal of Ecology 27:269-278.

Zhao, J. editor. Zheng Guangmei, Wang Huadong, Xu Jialin. 1990. The Natural History of China. McGraw Hill Publishing Company, New York.

Zhao, S. 1999. Biodiversity and Conservation in Changbai Mountain Biosphere Reserve. Ambio 26(8).

Prepared by: Chris Carpenter
Reviewed by: In process



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