This ecoregion covers the majority of the Italian Peninsula, excluding the highest elevations of montane forest scattered atop mountain ranges. The natural vegetation is a mixed deciduous and sclerophyllous forest, characteristic of the Mediterranean climate. Many forest species have leathery evergreen leaves adapted to conserve water during the region’s dry summers. The northern and central Italian Peninsula presents an outstanding floral diversity with a high rate of endemism. One mountain within this region has the highest recorded number of orchid species in all of Europe. These forests also support a diverse fauna, including the largest remaining Italian populations of brown bear and Italian wolf. Though deforestation has not been very intensive within the ecoregion, a high potential for degradation remains, mainly the result of inadequate forestry management systems, road construction, and ski resorts. The construction of a tunnel and underground nuclear power center under the Gran Sasso Mountain threatens karstic water reserves.
Location and General Description
The Italian sclerophyllous and deciduous forests extend all along the North and Central Italian Peninsula, from the Po Basin to the southern Apennine Mountains of Basilicata and Calabria. Climatically, the ecoregion is characterized by a sharp altitudinal gradient. The warm and sub-humid lower elevations (average annual temperature of about 14-17 ºC) differ greatly from the cold and humid higher elevations (over 1,800 millimeters [mm] average annual precipitation, average annual temperature of about 9-13 ºC), which experience rigorous winters and abundant snow. From the geological point of view, the ecoregion is dominated by Mesozoic substrates – limestone, dolomite, marl, schist-marl, and sandstone. The Alpine orogenic was intense, producing steep, complex reliefs (Gran Sasso, 2912 meters [m]; Mt. Vettore, 2,476 m; Mt. Velino, 2,487 m; La Maiella, 2,793 m; La Meta, 2,241 m). Karst systems (caves, poljes, dolines, and canyons) are very frequent in the central Apennines. Volcanic rocks are also abundant, related to old volcanic activity that has resulted in a number of significant volcanic lakes (Bolsena; Vico; Bracciano), and mountains (Amiata, 1,738 m).
The wide altitudinal range of this ecoregion dictates several forest zones. The lowest elevations are characterized by the predominance of mixed sclerophyllous evergreen oak (Quercus ilex, mainly on rocky limestone slopes; Q. suber, mainly on volcanic rock) and deciduous (Quercus pubescens, Fraxinus ornus, Ostrya carpinifolia, Celtis australis) forests. Relict Cercis siliquastrum small forest stands frequently appear on limestone substrates in the central part of the Thyrrenian slopes of the Appenines, characterized by a number of deciduous species, such as Quercus pubescens, Acer monspessulanum, Carpinus orientalis, and Crataegus monogyna.
At medium elevations, mixed deciduous forests (Quercus cerris, Q. pubescens, Q. frainetto, Castanea sativa, Ostrya carpinifolia) predominate. The high elevations are characterized by highly diverse extensive mixed deciduous forests. Beech (Fagus sylvatica) constitutes the dominant species composing the tree canopy. Well-preserved forest stands include more than twenty tree species. These are primarily maple (Acer pseudoplatanus, A.obtusatum, and the strict endemic A. Lobelii), Sorbus aria, S. Aucuparia, S. Torminalis, Ulmus glabra, Tilia platyphyllos, Populus tremula, Ilex aquifolium, and Taxus baccata. Holly (I. aquifolium) and yew (T. baccata) are especially abundant in certain mountain areas, such as the Gargano peninsula (Umbra forests) in the Adriatic coast. Relict silver fir (Abies alba) forest stands appear in a few areas along the Appenines.
The ecoregion hosts an outstanding plant diversity. The endemism rate of the main mountain massifs is between 10 to 20% of the total flora (Abruzzo Mountains, 1,200 total species; Gran Sasso and Laga Mountains, 1,500 species; Maiella Mountains, 1,800 species; Gargano Mountains, more than 2,000 total species). Orchids are extremely abundant on certain mountain massifs (i.e. Gargano Mountains, 56 species; Maiella Mountains, 60 species, which represents the highest number of orchid species in all of Europe). Many of these are Mediterranean endemics: i.e. Orchis pauciflora, O. papilionacea, O. Laxiflora, O.lactea, O. Italica, O. Collina, Ophrys bertolonii, O. Atrata, Neotinea maculata, Limodorum abortivum, Himantoglossum adriaticum, and Dactylorhiza gervasiana. The endemic flora is distributed all along the altitudinal gradient; examples are Campanula garganica, Adonis distorta, Aquilegia ottonis, and Soldanella minima subsp. samnitica.
This ecoregion has a significant faunal diversity, though the number of endemic species is not high. More than 40 mammal species are present, including important populations of threatened large carnivores, such as the largest Italian population (around 60 individuals) of the highly endangered brown bear (Ursus arctus) and also the Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus). Among other notable mammals are the Italian roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), the endemic Italian chamois (Rupicapra ornata), the wild cat (Felis silvestris), the red deer (Cervus elaphus), the crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata), the pine marten (Martes martes), and the beech marten (Martes foina). Otter (Lutra lutra) is still present in certain mountain streams and lakes.
The ecoregion’s forests also host a high number of bird species, which in certain mountain massifs exceed 150 species. Among these are honey buzzard (Pernis apivorus) and golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). The griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) has recently been reintroduced to the Vellino Mountain area.
Endemic amphibia species are also distributed all along the Apennine Mountains and include Salamandrina terdigitata, Triturus italicus, Rana italica, and Salamandra gigliolii. The ecoregion’s mountain massifs support around 14 reptile species, which are also typical of similar forest ecosystems – mountain conifer and broadleaf mixed forests – from other Southern European Mediterranean countries. Examples of these are Algyroïdes fitzingeri, Podarcis tiliguerta, and Podarcis sicula.
A very high diversity of butterflies (Lepidoptera) is also notable for these mountain massifs. Approximately 116 diurnal species and 700 nocturnal species have been recorded.
The ecoregion has maintained the majority of its forest cover. Outstanding and extensive old-growth forests have persisted to the present day due to the inaccessibility of these mountain massifs. The Foreste Casentinese National Park is a good example of well-preserved forest in the region. Nonetheless, most of the ecoregion’s 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. Important mountain grasslands and degraded slopes resulted from intense human activity within the Abbruzzo and Sibillini massifs that lasted from medieval times until the 19th century. Grazing and forestry management has considerably modified the forest structure; clear-cutting has lead to even-age stands with very few old trees and a poor plant understory.
Human population remains very low, mainly being concentrated in larger towns in the mountain valleys and coastal areas. The ecoregion has a very good network of protected areas (the national parks of Abruzzo, Maiella, Sibillini, Gran Sasson & Laga Mts, Foreste Casentinese, and Gargano, as well as an important number of natural parks), that extends all along the 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
Though deforestation has not been very intensive within the ecoregion, there remains a high potential for human impact, mainly due to inadequate forestry management systems, road construction, and ski resorts. The construction of a tunnel and underground nuclear power center under the Gran Sasso Mountain has considerably reduced karstic water reserves. This has caused drying up of mountain springs, and a sharp reduction of 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.
There are many conflicts over land usage in the Mediterranean forests. Seemingly in opposition, nature protection, hunting, grazing, and tourism development (mainly urban development in the coastal zone and around mountain ski resorts) must be compromised upon in a creative and rational manner. A combination of climatic factors and forestry usage that has increased the flammability of forest species makes the risk of forest fire serious in the Mediterranean. Causes are generally the result of agricultural fires overcoming control, accidental fires caused by recreational users, or in some cases, intentional setting of destructive fires.
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion is equivalent to the Digital Map of European Ecological Regions (DMEER) unit of the same name. The boundaries of this unit are primarily a product of the DMEER delineation process, which is responsible for northwestern and southern boundaries of the ecoregion. It includes sub-Mediterranean-subcontinental thermophilous bitter oak forests and sub-Mediterranean and meso-supra-Mediterranean downy oak forests of the Italian peninsula, not including the lower portions of the ‘boot’ of the peninsula (which are part of the Tyrrhenian-Adriatic sclerophyllous and mixed forests ecoregion). It also does not include the upland beech forests in the peninsula, which are included in the Appenine deciduous montane forests ecoregion.
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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- WWF. 2001. The Mediterranean forests. A new conservation strategy. WWF, MedPO, Rome.
- WWF. In preparation. Mediterranean Forest Gap Analysis Database. WWF, MedPO, Rome.
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