Mountain regions and UNESCO Mountain Biosphere Reserves (MBRs) encapsulate broad elevational ranges, cover large gradients of geological, topographical and climatic diversity, and thus host greater biodiversity than the surrounding lowlands. Much of the biological richness in MBRs results from the interaction of climatic contrasts and gravitational forces along elevational gradients. External forces such as atmospheric change and human land use interact with these gradients, and result in distinct landscape patchiness, i.e. mosaics of land cover types within and across elevational belts. The management of MBRs influences land use and land cover, which affects biodiversity and ecosystem processes, both of which provide goods and services to society. Due to their broad environmental and biological diversity, MBRs are ideally suited for global change research and will be increasingly important in illustrating biodiversity conservation. This article summarises the ecologically relevant results of an international workshop on elevational gradients that aimed to achieve a synthesis of the major ecosystem and biodiversity conditions and drivers in an altitude context. The workshop developed a core research agenda for MBRs that prioritises long-term research and changes in land use across a broad elevational range.