Monte San Giorgio, Switzerland

Content Cover Image

A view of the panorama from the Monte San Giorgio (

Geographical Location

Monte San Giorgio (45°55' North and 8°57' East) is a World Heritage Site located in southernmost Switzerland, between the two southern arms of Lake Lugano in the canton of Ticino.

Date and History of Establishment

The site has been subject to a number of local and regional protective measures. In summary:

  • 1974: The Cantonal legislature decreed Cantonal authorization for and supervision of the search and collection of rocks, minerals and fossils on the mountain; decree amended 1975 and 1995;
  • 1975: Cantonal regulation for the Protection of Flora and Fauna designated the whole mountain a Natural Protection zone;
  • 1977: The entire site was listed on the Swiss Federal Inventories of Landscapes, Sites and Natural Monuments and of Heritage Sites of National Importance, based on articles 5 and 6 of the1966 Federal law on the Protection of Nature and Preservation of Natural Heritage;
  • 1982: The Arzo Development Plan designated the Poncione forest part of a nature reserve;
  • 1985: The Riva San Vitale Development Plan designated the mountain, part of a nature reserve;
  • 1990: The commune of Meride Development Plan designated areas on the south side of the mountain summit (the dry meadows) an area of special natural interest, and the landscape around Meride a Landscape part of a nature reserve;
  • 2001: Cantonal law on nature protection designated the whole mountain a Landscape Protection Zone under the Protected Areas Scheme;

Cantonal Office for the Protection of Nature designated the landscape around Meride a Landscape Protection Zone under the Protected Areas Scheme;

  • 2002: Nomination for World Heritage status proposed for the whole area of the forested mountain area by the Swiss Agency for Forests, Environment and Landscape.
  • March 2002: Cantonal law on nature protection passed.


The core World Heritage site is 849 hectares (ha). A buffer zone of 1,389 ha surrounds the property except along the Italian border.

Land Tenure

The Swiss Federation, Canton of Ticino. The core and buffer areas of the property lie within the communes of Meride, Riva San Vitale and Brusino-Arziso. Some farmland and houses in the first two of these areas are privately owned. The buffer area is also in the communes of Arzo, Tremona, Bizasio, Rancate, Ligornetto and Stabio.


Ranges from 271 meters (m) (lake level) to 1,096.7 m above sea level.

Physical Features

caption Lake Lugano. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) This largely forested low mountain rises 826 m directly from Lake Lugano and valleys either side. It is pyramidal, with steeper north slopes to the lake and a gentle south slope, which dips at the angle of its geological formations towards the Po valley. These are fossiliferous Triassic carbonate formations that are mostly located within the protected area, outcropping between both older volcanic and more recent sedimentary formations of the Southern Alpine Series in the buffer zone. Permian andesites and rhyolites of volcanic origin are exposed on the north face, with Jurassic limestone formations occuring on the lower southern slopes that dip on the edge of the mountain, under the sediments of the Po valley. Limestones occur in beds more than 1,000 m thick and comprise a 15 million year record of submarine tectonic activity and marine sedimentation under varying conditions and the different environments of successive transgressions and recessions. The beds include conglomerate and sandstone (Bellano formation), reef limestone, dolomites and bituminous shales (Besano formation - the main fossil-bearing horizons), marls, limestones and gypsum (Pizzella marls), marine dolomites (Principale Dolomiti) and dolomitised oolitic limestone (Tremona beds). Within these karstic formations there are some thirty caves. The oldest of the overlying Jurassic sediments at the southern base of the mountain yield ornamental brecchia.

Within the Besano formation, at least five distinct regularly superimposed fossil beds containing exceptionally rich, rare, well preserved fossils of the Middle Triassic period (245-230 million years ago), are found. These are named, from older to younger: Grenzbitumenzone, Cava Inferiore, Cava Superiore (both quarried beds), Cassino beds and Kalkscheiferzone beds of Meride Limestone. These have yielded more than 10,000 fossil remains: 30 species of marine and terrestrial reptiles, 80 different species of fish, hundreds of invertebrate species, ammonites, echinoderms, crustaceans, bivalves, cephalopods, insects, and terrestrial plants. Intercalated layers of ash provide a built-in time scale.


The climate is sub-Mediterranean with hot but rainy summers, and mild winters with few frosts. There is some air pollution in the Lugano valley.


caption Sweet chestnut Castanea sativa. (Source: Botanic Gardens Trust: Sydney, Australia)

The flora of the site is of southern Alpine type with acid-loving plants on the volcanic rhyolitic north slope soils and lime-loving plants on the dolomitic and limestone dominated southern slopes. The acidic soils support sweet chestnut Castanea sativa, sessile oak Quercus petraea, and ash Fraxinus excelsior. The damp lime-rich soils support mixed broadleaf woodland of Carpinus betulifolia and the sub-Mediterranean species hop-hornbeam Ostrya carpinifolia, with, on dry shallow soils, pubescent oak Q. pubescens and manna ash F. ornus; withTilia spp. on dry to damp soils. Twenty-five hectares of dry meadows of high botanic diversity occur on the limestone of the mountain top, dominated by dwarf sedge Carex humilis and tall moorgrass Mollinia arundinacea. Of over 100 species of plants on the mountain, 38 are rare, endemic or protected, including Adenophora lilifolia and Gladiolus imbricatus, endemic species to Switzerland. The mountain supports the main Swiss population of Iris gramina and important populations of Dorycnium herbaceum and Danthonia alpina.

Monte San Giorgio is also known as a mycological sanctuary because 554 species of fungi have been found there, 130 of which are endemic to this part of Ticino, five growing only in one locale, Meride. They include Boletus xanthacyaneus, Cortinarius boudieri v. pseudoarcuatus, Cortinarius pelargoniobtusus, Lepiota foruignoni and Lycoperdon velatum. More than a third of European Boletus species are found here. Two species are protected by Swiss Law (Federal Ordinance on the Protection of Nature and Preservation of Natural Heritage) and 19 are listed in the provincial Red List of Swiss micromycota. The most recently discovered species (Tricholoma basirubens) was found in 1979.


caption ricket. (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Including adjacent lakeside sites, 109 species of vertebrate animals have been recorded on Monte San Giorgio comprising 27 mammals, 66 birds, 9 reptiles and 7 amphibians. Of these 109 species 37 are included in the Swiss Red List of Endangered Species, and 21 are protected by the Berne Convention.

The site is unique, supporting Switzerland's only population of Savi's pine vole Pitymys savii. The Monte San Giorgio area is particularly important for the reproduction of amphibians and reptiles, it includes six sites identified as areas of national importance. There are also 58 species of mollusc (18 are listed on the National Red List), 63 species of butterflies Hesperiidae and moths Rhopaloceri (a third of all Swiss species), 85 species of wild bees (apioid Hymenoptera), 11 species of ground beetle (carabid Coleoptera), 47 cricket and grasshopper (Orthoptera) species (two of which are endemic to Ticino). There are also a high number of spider species that are found in the dry meadow area.

In the Gaggiolo stream there are large numbers of crayfish Astacus pallipes, and in the karst caves of the southern slopes many cave-dwelling crustacea and millipedes.

Cultural Heritage

The surrounding area of Ticino has been settled since Neolithic times. Roman and Lombardic tombs, inscriptions and artifacts have been found at Riva San Vitale where there is a famous 5th century baptistry. In the late 18th century, there were excavations for fuel oil from the bituminous shales near Besano and mining continued intermittently for a century. Ornamental breccia has also been quarried near Arzo for centuries. Gypsum peat and lime have also been quarried in the past. Ichthyol and Saurol obtained from the bituminous shales and used for treating skin conditions were mined from 1907 to the early 1950s at Cava Tre Fontane, just beneath the mountain summit. The processing plant at Spinirolo near Meride is now a cultural and holiday center. The architecture of the villages typifies the Sottocenere lombardic style of the Ticino.

Local Human Population

An estimated 150 people live within the core protected area of the nominated property. Four villages, Arzo, Meride, Tremona and Besazio are located within the site's buffer zone area, as well as at the base of the mountain, the small towns of Riva San Vitale to the east and Brusino-Arcizio to the north-west. Combined with three other villages in the locality, nine communities occur within relatively close proximately of the site. The total population of all these inhabited areas is 11,500. Mining and quarrying no longer occur in the area, except at Arzo where breccia (Arzo marble), is mined under tight regulation. Forestry and farming are the only other activities occurring within the locality. The local population is sympathetic to preservation of the palaeological heritage of the site. The 'Friends of the Mountain Park', are a local non-governmental organization (NGO) group who propose the establishment of a Natural Park on the mountain.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

Despite comparatively little tourist infrastructure, 80-100,000 people are estimated visit Monte San Giorgio each year. Public visits to the excavations are organized from time to time. In 1974, a fossil museum was established in the village of Meride, on the edge of the core zone. It currently receives 11,000 visitors a year. A new more comprehensive museum is planned for the future. An educational trail with information displays linking the main geological and palaeontological features of the mountain was established in 1980. Nearby museums also exhibiting finds from the mountain exist in Besano and Induno, in Italy, to the south-west and in Lugano in Switzerland. These sponsor publications and exhibitions. A Geo-Guide to the mountain written in German and Italian is available at museums in Zurich, Milan and Lugano. Local ventures are developing exhibitions of industrial archeology. Increased levels of tourism will necessitate improved access and trails, as well as the possible regulation of visitors.

Scientific Research and Facilities

The horizon richest in large fossils, the Grentzbitumenzone in the Besano formation, was studied as early as 1800, and first published about in 1847. Major excavations were started by Italian researchers in 1863, 1878 and in the early years of the 20th century. In 1919, the production of ichthyol for medical use, from the bituminous beds uncovered valuable fossils, and since 1924, especially under the direction of of Dr. B. Peyer from the University of Zurich, there have been more than 50 excavation campaigns at some 20 sites. Great quantities of large, well-preserved saurian fossils new to science were found in the Grentz bitumenzone. The southern slopes have been studied since the 1950s, under the direction of Dr E. Kuhn-Schnyder, by the Italian Society of Natural Sciences and staff of the Milan Civic Museum; and in the 1990s by the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Milan, the Palaeological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich and the Lugano cantonal Museum of Natural History. Quarrying and excavations in the Cava, Cassina and Kalkscheiferzone beds have exposed a wealth of smaller fossils. All formations are still yielding species new to science. Over 80 fish, 30 reptile and hundreds of invertebrate fossil species have been discovered in all, recorded in almost 800 scientific publications on the fauna of the mountain, some 70 having been published since 1989.

Conservation Value

The Triassic formations of Monte San Giorgio are a long studied very legible series which illustrate geological processes and the development of past life. The mountain is one of the five or six most important fossil-bearing sites in the world, because of:

  • its wide diversity of well preserved palaeontological specimens of fish, reptiles, invertebrates and plants;
  • their rarity and uniqueness;
  • the continuous sedimentary succession over 15 million years, dateable by intercalated ash, in five levels of deposition enabling evolutionary studies of marine biota;
  • their setting in the South Alpine series of rocks dated from some 350 million years ago to the present;
  • their excavation for over 100 years only by university and museum personnel which has resulted in one of the most complete, best studied and well cataloged such sites in the world and an invaluable reference point for Middle Triassic marine fauna as comparable sites are being uncovered in southern China; and
  • continuous planning and regulation for their regulation and protection and a local population which shares fully in the aims of preservation.

Conservation Management

The mountain area is almost uninhabited, is in a largely natural state and is protected by a variety of Cantonal decrees, federal inventories, local commune plans and federal and Cantonal laws governing forests. These decree Cantonal control over the collection of rocks, minerals and fossils, the monitoring of sites, the protection of flora and fauna, especially of the summit dry meadows, and have designated an area near Meride a Landscape Protection Zone under the Protected Areas Scheme. Excavations (with the subsequent discoveries) are authorized and supervised by the Cantonal Museum of Natural History in Lugano. They are allowed only to university staff in good standing: permits are held by the Palaeological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich, the Lugano Cantonal Museum of Natural History and the Department of Earth Sciences of the University of Milan.

A draft management plan for the site has been developed, stating the following objectives and measures:

  • Management of the palaeontological components of the site through co-ordination between universities and local authorities of their excavation, conservation, study and exhibition;
  • The need for the construction of a new fossil museum at Meride as a more comprehensive introduction to all aspects of the mountain and as a visitor reception, information and training center;
  • Management of planning for the area: local authorities in both Switzerland and Italy, with a number of public and private sector organizations, have agreed as part of the INTERREG IIIA initiative on a joint program of integrated sustainable development to co-ordinate excavations, disseminate information and promote the environmental and landscape protection, public transport and path networks of the area;
  • Promotion by the publication of the geo-guide, a website and a documentary of the area's tourist potential.

Management Constraints

There are no significant constraints on management of the site at present.


An unspecified number of Federal and Cantonal officials, forestry workers and local authority managers. All have some responsibility for the protection area, however none are funded to work in the area full-time.


Excavations and exhibitions are funded by university institutes and museums. The Swiss Confederation and Canton of Ticino have granted CHF 500,000 for maintenance of features of the mountain. However, funding requirements for the management plan of the property are not yet estimated.

IUCN Management Category

  • Monte San Giorgio V (Protected Landscape)
  • Natural World Heritage Site: Natural criteria i

Further Reading

The official nomination document for the site contains a bibliography of over 800 references. The following references are included within this bibliographic reference list and are highlighted as being of particular value.

  • Bernoulli, D. & Wiedenmayer, F. (1967). Exkursion nr. 26. Lugano-Mendrisio, Mendrisio-Arzo-Serpiano, Mendrisio-Breggiaschlucht-Chiasso. Geol. Fuhrer Sweiz, 5:441-460.
  • Felber, M.,Gentilini, G., Furrer, H. & Tintori, A. (2000). Geo-Guida del Monte San Giorgio (Ticino/Svizzera-Provincia di Varese/Italia). Geol.Insubr.allegato 5/1 (in German and Italian).
  • Kälin, O. & Trümpy, D. (1977). Sedimentation und paläotektonik in den westlichen Südalpen: zur triasisch-jurassischen geschichte des Monte Nudo-Beckens. Eclogae geol.Helv. 70/2:295-350.
  • Kuhn-Schnyder, E. (1963). Wege der reptiliensystematik. Palaont.Z. 37/1-2:61-87.
  • Kuhn-Schnyder, E. (1976). Guida al Museo Paleontologico di Meride. 31pp.
  • Molinari, M.,Felber,M.,Serretti, S.,Furrer,H.,Tintori, A.& Baumgartner,S. (2002). Nomination of Monte San Giorgio for Inclusion on the World Heritage List. Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape (SAEFL), Bern. 56pp, Appendices 277pp.+ 5maps. [Appendix A contains a thematic bibliography of over 800 references.]
  • Museo Cantonale di Storia Naturale (1990). Introduzione al Paesaggio Naturale del Cantone Ticino, 1. Le Componente Naturali. Dipartimento dell'Ambiente, Bellinzona, 484pp.
  • Monte San Giorgio Website



Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




M, U. (2014). Monte San Giorgio, Switzerland. Retrieved from


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