Located at the highest elevations of northern and central Italy’s mountain ranges, the Apennine deciduous montane forests have an outstanding floral diversity with high endemism. They also support a diverse fauna, including the largest Italian populations of brown bear and Italian wolf. While most forest cover has been maintained in these high mountains, inadequate forestry management systems, road construction, and ski resorts have degraded the forest ecosystems. Construction of an underground nuclear power center has considerably reduced water reserves as well as creating a considerable nuclear pollution problem.
Location and General Description
The Apennine deciduous montane forests are spread geographically among the highest elevations of the Northern and Central Italian Peninsula. Climatically, the ecoregion is characterized by a perhumid sub-alpine bioclimate (over 1,800 millimeters (mm) of annual rainfall; average annual temperature of about 3-5ºC). Winters are harsh and snowfall abundant. From a geological point of view, the ecoregion is dominated by Mesozoic substrates– limestone, dolomite, marl, schist-marl, and sandstone. The Alpine orogeny has been intense, resulting in steep, complex reliefs (Gran Sasso, 2,912 meters (m); Mount Vettore, 2,476 m; Mount Velino, 2,487 m; La Maiella, 2,793; La Meta, 2,241 m). Karst systems (caves, poljes, dolines, and canyons) are very frequent within the central Apennines Mountain summits.
The high elevations of this ecoregion dictate the following vegetation zones:
- Extensive beech (Fagus sylvatica) forests. Some relic black pine stands (Pinus nigra var. Italica) appear on certain rocky slopes (i.e. La Camosciara, Abruzzo National Park).
- The mountain summits are characterized by meadows and cushion scrubs, mainly composed of relict populations of the Alpine pine species (Pinus mugo), with Juniperus nana, Sorbus chamaemespilus, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, and Vaccinium vitis –idaea as the predominant species that compose the tree canopy. Rocky plant communities support a high number of endemic species.
The ecoregion hosts an outstanding plant diversity, including a significant number of Alpine species –i.e. Gentiana dinarica, G. nivalis, Androsace alpina, Polygala chamaebuxus, Saxifraga oppositifolia, Ranunculus seguieri, Carlina acaulis. The endemism rate of the main mountain massifs is between 10 and 20% of the total flora (Abruzzo Mountains, 1,200 species; Gran Sasso and Laga Mountains, 1,500 species; Maiella mountains, 1,800 species). The endemic flora rate increases at higher elevations. Some examples of endemic species are Androsace mathildae, Ranunculus magellensis, Aquilegia magellensis, and Soldanella minima samnitica.
This ecoregion has a significant faunal diversity as well, though the number of endemic species is reduced. More than 40 mammals are present, including important populations of threatened large carnivores, such as the largest Italian population of the highly endangered brown bear (Ursus arctus) and also the Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus). Other notable mammals are the Italian roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), the endemic Italian Chamois (Rupicapra ornata), the wild cat (Felis silvestris), the pine marten (Martes martes), and the beech marten (Martes foina). Otter (Lutra lutra) is still present in certain mountain streams and lakes.
The forest ecosystems host a high number of bird species, which in certain mountain massifs exceed 150 species. Examples are honey buzzard (Pernis apivorus), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), endangered raptors, and rare Paleartic birds.
Endemic amphibia species are distributed all along the Apennine Mountains (i.e. Salamandrina terdigitata, Triturus italicus, Rana italica, and Salamandra s. Gigliolii). The ecoregional mountain massifs host around 14 reptile species also typical of other similar forest ecosystems- mountain conifer and broadleaf mixed forests- from other Southern European Mediterranean countries (i.e. Algyroïdes fitzingeri, Podarcis tiliguerta, and Podarcis sicula).
The ecoregion has maintained the majority of its forest cover. Certain outstanding and extensive old-growth forests have persisted due to the inaccessibility of these mountain massifs. Nevertheless, most forests are mid-quality coppice woodlands that have largely recovered as a result of an intense rural abandonment during the first half of the 20th century. Mountain grasslands and degraded slopes are the result of intense human activity that affected the Abbruzzo and Sibillini massifs from medieval times until the 19th century. Grazing and forestry management considerably modified the forest structure (i.e. clear-cutting lead to even-age stands with very few old trees, and a poor plant understory).
Human population is very low, mainly represented by small villages or shepherd settlements, a high percentage of which is currently abandonment. Mountain tourism is contributing to partially recover the mountain settlements.
The ecoregion has a very good network of protected areas (the national parks of Abruzzo, Maiella, Sibillini, Gran Sasso, and Laga Mountains), that spreads all along the Central Apennines. This continuum of nature reserves has allowed the recovery of the populations of a number of very threatened mammal species, such as brown bear and wolf, which are currently increasing.
Types and Severity of Threats
Even if deforestation has not been very intensive through the ecoregion, there is a high potential of human impact, mainly due to inadequate forestry management systems, road construction, and ski resorts. The construction of a tunnel and an underground nuclear power center under the Gran Sasso Mountain has considerably reduced the karstic water reserves– drying up mountain springs, and sharply reducing the valley table napes- as well as provoking a considerable nuclear pollution problem. The construction of a second tunnel, which is foreseen in the area, will certainly increase the threats related to water loss and nuclear power pollution. Land use conflicts, such as nature protection, hunting, grazing, and also tourism development– mainly urban development around mountain ski resorts- have also considerably increased the risk of degradation of the ecoregion’s ecosystems.
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER unit of the same name. It is also equivalent to Bohn et al.’s montane to altimontane beech and mixed beech forests in the Italian peninsula.
Additional Information on this Ecoregion
- For a shorter summary of this entry, see the WWF WildWorld profile of this ecoregion.
- To see the species that live in this ecoregion, including images and threat levels, see the WWF Wildfinder description of this ecoregion.
- World Wildlife Fund Homepage
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