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Southern Europe: The Alps of northern Italy, southern France, Switzerland, and Slovenia

Located in Central Europe, the Alps stretch across the countries of France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. As with nearby mountain chains, the Alps are very important as they contribute much of what is left of the original forest cover of central and southern Europe. Some 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 4,500 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 untouched, winter resorts and increasing human populations threaten this ecoregion.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    57,700 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
Situated between the Eurosiberian and the Mediterranean biogeographic regions in 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 has a Mediterranean climate. The mountains cover an area that is about 1200 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 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 beech (Fagus sylvatica) and silver fir (Abies alba), pure spruce (Picea abies), or prostrate pine (Pinus mugo) in the outer regions. Closer to the interior, larch (Larix decidua), arolla pine (Pinus cembra), and scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris) replaces 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 200 habitat types can be classified throughout the mountain range.

Biodiversity Features
The Alps are an interzonal mountain system (Orobiome), or a "transition area" between Central and Mediterranean Europe, and still have large pristine areas and a high degree of naturalness. 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.

About 80 mammal species inhabit the Alps, none of which is "strictly" endemic. Large carnivore populations have been reduced in size or fragmented into small groups. These 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 capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), which consists of increasingly isolated populations.

Only one of the 21 total species of amphibian is endemic, Salamandra lanzai. Fifteen reptiles species are present. Diversity of invertebrates overcomes that of the vertebrate species by a factor of almost twenty; about one third of invertebrate species are considered threatened.

Current Status
Wilderness areas can still be found throughout almost all of the Alpine territory.

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 has to do not only with difficulties in protecting a rather large area, but also with the necessity of dealing with 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 factor becomes more and more dangerous. 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 (Bohn et al. 2000).

Bohn, U., G. Gollub, and C. Hettwer. 2000. Reduced general map of the natural vegetation of Europe. 1:10 million. Bonn-Bad Godesberg 2000.

Boitani, L. 1999. Final Draft Action Plan for Conservation of Wolves (Canis lupus) in Europe. WWF, Switzerland.

Breitenmoser U, et al. 1999. Final Draft Action Plan for Conservation of Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) in Europe. WWF, Switzerland.

Bulgarini, F. et al. 1998. Libro rosso degli animali d’Italia. Vertebrati. WWF, Rome.

Conti, F. et al. 1992. Libro rosso delle piante d’Italia. WWF, Rome.

Digital Map of European Ecological Regions (DMEER), Version 2000/05 (

Ellenberg, H. 1986. Vegetation Mitteleuropas mit den Alpen. Ulmer Verlag, Stuttgart.

Heath, M.F. and Evans, M.I., editors. 2000. Important Bird Areas in Europe: Priority sites for conservation. Vol 2: Southern Europe. BirdLife International (BirdLife Conservation Series No: 8).

IUCN. 1996. 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Publication Service Unit, Cambridge.

Mayer, H. 1984. Wälder Europas. Gustav Fisher Verlag, Stuttgart.

Ozenda P. 1994. Vegetation du continent Europeen. Delachaux et Niestle, Lausanne, Swizerland.

Ozenda P. 1985. La Végétation de la Chaîne Alpine. Masson Ed., Paris.

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.

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. 1997 IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants. Compiled by WCMC. IUCN, Publication Service Unit, Cambridge.

WWF and IUCN. 1994. Centres of Plant Diversity. A guide and strategy for their conservation. 3 Volumes. IUCN Publication Service Unit, Cambridge.

Prepared by: Pedro Regato
Reviewed by: In process


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