Situated in Central Europe, the Alps conifer and mixed forests stretch across the countries of France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Similar to nearby mountain ranges, the Alps are ecologically significant, since they constitute much of the relict of the original forest cover of central and southern Europe. A number of the last forests in Europe of an almost natural state are found in this ecoregion. Formed during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs, the Alps are home to a high level of biodiversity. Over 4500 species of plants are found here, 400 of which are endemic. Faunal diversity is also high with 200 bird, 21 amphibian, 15 reptile, and 80 mammal species. While large areas of habitat remain intact, winter resorts and increasing human populations threaten this ecoregion.
Location and general description
Situated between the Eurosiberian and the Mediterranean Basin biogeographic regions of Europe, the Alps represent an ecotonal mountain system and are divided in three major sectors. The western region is influenced by the mild and humid Atlantic air streams, the central region has a continental climate, and the eastern region exhibits a Mediterranean climate. The mountains cover an area that is about 1200 kilometres (km) long, are distributed among seven different countries, and have a total population of 11.1 million people. It is a relatively young mountain system, whose "step-like" morphology was contoured by the Pleistoceneic glaciation. Alpine bedrocks can be divided into two major groups: calcareous rocks and siliceous material. The climate is primarily cold and temperate, with slight local variations, for example in border "Mediterranean character" areas.
Three relevant ecological patterns can be identified within this mountain system. Deep valleys are rich in a variety of habitats and are important migration corridors. Their potential natural vegetation is deciduous forest of oaks such as Quercus robur, Q. petraea, Q. pubescens, and other broad-leaved trees. Sclerophyllous evergreen Mediterranean trees occur in valleys of the above mentioned "Mediterranean" border areas. Mountain forests are composed of mixed European Beech (Fagus sylvatica) and Silver Fir (Abies alba), pure Norway Spruce (Picea abies), or Dwarf Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo) in the outer regions. Closer to the interior, European Larch (Larix decidua), Arolla Pine (Pinus cembra), and Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) may replace P. mugo. Strict alpine zones host many relict species within a belt of alpine grasslands. There are also some major river systems that influence (and are influenced by) the Alpine ecosystems. These include the Rhine, Rhone, Danube, and Po Rivers. The Alps are representative of the high habitat diversity that can be found in mountain systems, as fully 200 habitat types can be classified throughout the mountain range.
The Alps are an interzonal mountain system (Orobiome), or transition zone, between Central and Mediterranean Europe, and still have sizable pristine areas and a high degree of the natural environment. About 4500 species of vascular plants, 800 species of mosses, 300 liverworts, 2500 lichens and more than 5000 fungi can be found here. Up to 400 of the vascular species are endemic, particularly among the genera Campanula, Draba, Pedicularis, Phyteuma, Primula, Ranunculus, Saxifraga, and Viola.
Some of the prominent tree species occurring in the ecoregion include Downy Oak (Quercus pubescens), Dwarf Birch (Betula nana), Blue-leaved Willow (Salix caesia), Dwarf Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo) and Green Alder (Alnus viridis).
There are a number of herbaceous species prominent in the ecoregion, among them a number of taxa from the family Orchidaceae, including Marsh Helleborine (Epipactis palustris), Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine), Dark-red Helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens), Summer Lady's Tresses (Spiranthe, aestivalis), Bug Orchid (Orchis coriophora), and Greater Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera chlorantha).
Other wildflowers present in the ecoregion are the endemic Alpine Colombine (Aquilegia alpina) and the near endemic Jeweled Rocket (Sisymbrium austriacum); other non-endemics include Snow in Summer (Cerastium tomentosum), Rock Soapwort (Sapanaria oxymoides), Candle Larkspur (Delphinium elatum)
About 80 mammal species inhabit the European Alps, none of which is strictly endemic. Large carnivore populations have been reduced in size or fragmented into smaller sub-populations. These species include Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), wolf (Canis lupus), and brown bear (Ursus arctos). Large herbivores are widely distributed.
About 200 breeding bird species can be identified, as well as an equal number of migratory species. The Alps are one of the last strongholds for the central European population of the Threatened Western Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), whose populations are increasingly isolated from each other.
Only one of the 21 total species of amphibian is endemic, Lanza's Alpine Salamander (Salamandra lanzai). Fifteen reptile species are present within the ecoregion. Diversity of invertebrates overwhelms that of the vertebrate species by a factor of almost twenty; moreover, approximately one third of invertebrate species are considered threatened.
Non-endemic amphibians in the Alps conifer and mixed forests are represented by the:
- Common European Toad (Bufo bufo);
- Common Parsley Frog (Pelodytes punctatus);
- Coruna Frog (Pelophylax perezi);
- Edible Frog (Pelophylax esculentus)
- European Common Frog (Rana temporaria)
- European Treefrog (Hyla arborea)
- Fire-bellied Toad (Bombina bombina)
- Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita);
- Olive Midwife Toad (Alytes obstetricans)
- Lake Frog (Pelophylax ridibunda);
- Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina);
- European Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra);
- Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris);
- Palmate Newt (Triturus helveticus); and
- Marbled Newt (Triturus marmoratus).
Limited extents of natural wilderness areas can still be found throughout much of the Alpine territory within this ecoregion.
Types and severity of threats
The foremost conservation concern in the Alps is the excessive fragmentation and loss of habitats and populations. This mainly threatens the permanence of large carnivores (who are naturally returning or are being reintroduced in the Alps). Moreover, alpine conservation deals not only with difficulties in protecting a large area, but also with the necessity of addressing an area that is inhabited and exploited by man (through tourism, agriculture, and power plants/industry), as well as where the air and water pollution factors becoming increasing ecological threats. Conservation policies must therefore deal with trends such as the decreasing importance of traditional agriculture, the high intensity of tourism, the expansion of urban centres and the development of commuter systems. This means that any conservation action must have many facets, including topics dealing with wilderness, education, and ecological networks.
Justification of ecoregion delineation
This ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER (2000) unit of the same name. It consists of montane to altimontane beech, and mixed beech forests, submontane to altimontane spruce and spruce-fir forests, and alpine vegetation in the European Alps. It also includes small portions of submontane acidophilous oak and mixed oak forests, nemoral, sub- and oro-Mediterranean pine forests, and nival and sub-nival vegetation of the high mountains.
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Additional information on the ecoregion
- For a shorter summary of this entry, see the WWF WildWorld profile of this ecoregion.
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- Pignatti, S. 1998. I Boschi d'Italia. Sinecologia e Biodiversità. UTET, Roma.
- Shackleton, D.M., editor, and the IUCN/SSC Caprinae Specialist Group. 1997. Wild Sheep and their Relatives. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for Caprinae. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. ISBN: 2831703530
- Swenson, J.E. et al. 1999. Final Draft Action Plan for Conservation of the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) in Europe. WWF, Switzerland.
- Water, K.S., and Gillett, H.J., editors. 1998. IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants. Compiled by WCMC. IUCN, Publication Service Unit, Cambridge.
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