They look like comfy cushions from the outside, but inside they contain mini-ecosystems, sheltered from the harsh mountain environment around them.

One of the best ways for mountain plants to maximise their chances of survival in extremes of wind and temperature is to form a dome shape. Hundreds of species do it, including the two-flower cinquefoil (Potentilla biflora, pictured below).

Now it appears that many more species, from microbes to animals, exploit these domes too. Within each cushion plant’s structure is a totally different world – a sheltered microcosm with moderate temperatures, higher moisture and good soil.

“They form a shape that can be compared to a turtle,” says Fabien Anthelme of the French Institute for Development Research based in La Paz, Bolivia, who studies alpine plants. “It allows them to develop their own microenvironment, which is moist, warm and rich in nutrients.”

Read more on New Scientist website.