Carpathian montane conifer forests
The Carpathian Mountains form an arc across Central and Eastern Europe. It provides habitat for the largest populations in Europe of brown bear, wolf and lynx, as well as over one third of all European plant species. The mountains are a vital watershed for Central Europe, feeding the major rivers in the area. A bridge between Europe’s northern and southwestern forests, the range serves as a corridor for the dispersal of plants and animals throughout Europe. Though approximately 16% of the ecoregion is under some form of protection, logging, hunting, and development threaten to break this critical link.
Location and General Description
The Carpathian range stretches from the western border of the Czech Republic to the Iron Gate on the Danube River between Romania and Yugoslavia. The whole bow-like chain is approximately 1400 kilometers long and 100-200 km wide, between 45° and 50° N latitude and 17° and 27° E longitude. The highest range within the Carpathians are the Tatras, on the border of Poland and Slovakia, where the highest peaks slightly exceed 2600 meters elevation. The entire Carpathian chain is usually divided into three major parts: the Western Carpathians (Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary), the Eastern Carpathians (SE Poland, eastern Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania), and the Southern Carpathians (Romania).
The climate of the Carpathians is moderately cool and humid, with both temperature and precipitation strongly correlated with elevation. The warmest locations in the Carpathian foothills in Romania have an average annual temperature well above 10° C, while in the highest parts of the Tatras the average annual temperature is only -2° C. The highest precipitation, exceeding 1800 millimeters (mm) per year, occurs in the northern slopes of Tatras; in the Carpathian foothills the annual precipitation can be as low as 600 mm. Except for the alpine zone, most of the precipitation falls as rain, peaking either in June (in the south) or in July (in the north). Snow cover lasts from less than three months in the foothills to more than seven months in the alpine zone. Snow accumulation is usually below 1 m, however, in higher elevations the snow cover can be up to 2-3 m deep.
The geology of the Carpathians is highly variable. The northern and northeastern parts of the Carpathians are composed of Carpathian flysh, consisting of layers of sandstone and shale of variable thickness. The highest mountain ranges (Tatras, Fagaras, Parîng, Retezat) are built of crystalline rock, mainly granite. There are also areas where the bedrock is mostly limestone, particularly in the inner part of Western Carpathians (Fatra, Slovensky Raj, Pieniny).
The vegetation of the Carpathians displays a pronounced zonation: the foothills are mostly covered by mixed deciduous forests, dominated by pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), lime (Tilia cordata) and hornbean (Carpinus betulus) in the north, and by various oak species (Quercus sessilis, Q. cerris, Q. pubescens, Q. frainetto) in the south. The montane zone, between 600 and 1100 m in the north and between 650 and 1450 m in the south, is dominated by two major species: European beech (Fagus sylvatica) and silver fir (Abies alba). Nearly pure beech forests dominate the montane zone in some mountain ranges in the Western Carpathians (Bile Karpatý, Male Karpatý), the Eastern Carpathians (Vihorlat, Bukovské Vrchý, Bieszczady) and the Southern Carpathians. In most areas beech is mixed with silver fir, Norway spruce (Picea abies), and sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus). In some places the montane zone is dominated by conifers, usually a mixture of silver fir and Norway spruce (Tatras, Moravske Beskydy, Oravska Magura in the Western Carpathians, Gorgany, Czornohora, and Munti Bistrei in the Eastern Carpathians). The subalpine zone (1100-1400 m in the north, 1400-1900 m in the south) consists of almost pure Norway spruce forests, with a small admixture of rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). Stone pine (Pinus cembra) occurs at the alpine timberline in the highest mountain ranges (Tatras, Czornohora, Marmures, Fagaras, Retezat) of the Carpathians. At the timberline belt of the Tatras mixed Pinus cembra-Larix decidua forests grow, similar those in central Alps. Above timberline, (1400 m in the northwestern Carpathians to 1900 m in the south), there is a distinct krummholz zone consisting of dense thickets of mountain pine (Pinus mugo), dwarf juniper (Juniperus communis subsp. nana) and green alder (Alnus viridis). Above the krummholz zone occur lush alpine meadows, except on the highest peaks in the Tatras, Fagaras, Parîng, and Retezat, which are mostly rocky or covered with very sparse alpine vegetation. The Bieszczady mountains in the Eastern Carpathians lack the subalpine spruce forest zone. Here, the timberline of dwarfed beeches (at approximately 1200 meters) directly border the alpine meadows.
The influence of humans dates back to ancient times in the foothills of the Southern Carpathians, however the north was not settled until late medieval times. An important process for the development of the entire region was the movement of the Walachian shepherds from the Balkans along the entire Carpathian chain in the Middle Ages. The Walachians were the first people to inhabit the more remote areas in the interior of the mountains. By cutting and burning forests along the mountain ridges they created numerous glades and meadows, which since have been a distinct feature of the Carpathian landscape. Traditional forms of grazing cattle, sheep and horses still persist in the Southern and Eastern Carpathians in Romania and in Ukraine, but are rapidly declining in the Western Carpathians. Agriculture is restricted to the valleys and foothill areas and does not play an important economic role. Logging and wood-processing industry is the main source of income in many areas of the Carpathians. The exploitation was very intense in the 19th and early 20th century, when many native forest stands were clear-cut and replaced by even-aged monocultures of Norway spruce. Clear-cutting is still taking place, especially in the Eastern Carpathians in Romania and Ukraine. In the Western Carpathians large scale clear-cuts have been abolished and the forest management is conducted mainly by employing various kinds of shelterwood and selective cutting systems.
The flora of the Carpathians is very specific and, compared with the surrounding areas, rich in rare and endemic plants. However, the number of endemic plants in the Carpathians is lower than in the Alps, Pyrenees or the mountain ranges of the Balkan Peninsula, primarily due to the fact, that the flora of the Carpathians was largely impoverished by glaciation. The total number of endemic species among the higher plants in Carpathians exceeds 100 species. The largest concentrations of endemic plant species are in the Tatras (Saxifraga wahlenbergii, Delphinium oxysepalum, Dianthus, Soldanella carpatica, Festuca tatrae, Cerastium tatrae, Dianthus praecox); other areas rich in endemic species include the high mountain ranges of the Eastern and Southern Carpathians. All the rare and endangered plants in the region are legally protected, and most of the highest concentrations of endemic plants are located in strictly protected areas (Tatras Biosphere Reserve on the border between Poland and Slovakia, Carpathian National Park in Ukraine, Retezat National Park in Romania). Among the rare and protected plants of the Carpathians are several woody species: the stone pine Pinus cembra, mountain pine Pinus mugo, and the European yew Taxus baccata. The Carpathians are reknown for their relatively large percentage of natural and semi-natural forests, occurring either in higher elevations or in areas of rugged topography with very limited access. Almost all natural and semi-natural forests of the Western Carpathians are now protected in nature reserves and national parks. In the Eastern and Southern Carpathians, the area of near-natural is declining due to logging in remote mountain areas.
The lower plants, lichens and fungi associated with the old-growth forests, and especially with dead wood, are still poorly known. However, one can expect that these ecosystems harbor a rich variety of rare species, exterminated elsewhere due to the intense forms of forest management.
The Carpathians support viable populations of several large predators (carnivores and raptors), providing the only sizeable refuge for these animals in Central and Western Europe. There are several thousand brown bear, more than four thousand wolves and probably over a thousand lynxes. The Carpathians are also one of the last European refuges of the wild cat, and a nesting site of the golden eagle. It is also the only mountain range in Europe with a free ranging population of European bison.
The region was once dominated by native mixed forests, however, due to intensive logging in the late 19th and the 20th century, in many places native forests have been replaced with spruce monocultures. The establishment of the first protected areas dates back to the 1930s, however the present network of protected areas has only become fairly well developed in the last 30 years. About 16% of the Carpathians is under some form of protection, however the conservation effort varies between the countries of the region.
Types and Severity of Threats
Current threats include: air and water pollution, intensive logging (especially with clear cuts), development of large ski resorts and tourist centers, and proposals for the organization of top sport events. Numerous watercourses are blocked by the hydroelectric installations. Plans for new motorways are a particular concern for habitat continuity. Biodiversity in the Carpathians is threatened by the common practice of reforestation with spruce monocultures and the rapid abandonment of the traditional forms of agriculture. Many game species are over hunted, and poaching is a serious problem especially in Ukraine.
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER unit of the same name. It predominantly consists of montane to altimontane beech and mixed beech forests, submontane to altimontane spruce and spruce-fir forests, and alpine vegetation in the Carpathian Mountains. Small portions of submontane beech and mixed beech forests connect disjunct areas of higher beech forests to the south.
Additional Information on this Ecoregion
- For a shorter summary of this entry, see the WWF WildWorld profile of this ecoregion..
- Bohn, Udo, Gisela Gollub, and Christoph Hettwer. 2000. Reduced general map of the natural vegetation of Europe. 1:10 million. Bonn-Bad Godesberg 2000.
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