Southern Europe: Southern Italy

The South Apennines ecoregion covers the forested mountaintops of southern Italy and Sicily. The region supports an outstanding diversity of plants. Sicily, in particular, has many endemic species. Of 2,700 vascular species, over 20% are endemic, and a majority of these are concentrated in the Madonie Mountains of this ecoregion. There is also a significant faunal diversity in the southern Apennines. The rare Sicilian shrew (Crocidura sicula) is endemic to Sicily, and persists in the montane forests. The Sila and Pollino wolf populations are the largest in Italy. The ecoregion also hosts a number of endemic birds such as the Corsican nuthatch (Sitta whiteheadi), as well as several endemic amphibians. Though the ecoregion has maintained the majority of its forest cover, pressures remain. Forestry management systems are inadequate and the mismanagement of pastures and over-grazing lead to further degradation.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    5,100 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
The South Apennines mixed forests ecoregion geographically covers a small area that is restricted to the high mountain massifs of the Italian regions of Basilicata, Calabria, and the island of Sicily. Climatically, the ecoregion is characterized by a sharp altitudinal gradient, from the warm and sub-humid lower elevations (average annual temperature of about 14-17º C) to the cold and per-humid higher elevations (over 2,200 mm, average annual temperature of about 9-13º C). Winters are rigorous with abundant snowfall. Frequent dense fogs envelop the mountain summits of southern Calabria and northeastern Sicily.

From the geological point of view, three major geologic systems can be distinguished. Paleozoic substrates (granite, schist, micaschist, diorite, and gneiss) compose the Aspromonte (Montalto, 1,955 m) and Sila (Botte Donato, 1929 m) massifs in Calabria, and Peloritani Montains (Rocca Salvatesta, 1,340 m) in Sicily. Volcanic rock forms the active Etna Volcano (almost 3,300 m) in Sicily. Mesozoic substrates (limestone, dolomite, marl, schist-marl, sandstone) make up the Pollino massif (Serra Dolcedorme, 2,267 m; Pollino, 2,248 m) between Basilicata and Calabria, and the Nebrodi (Mt. Soro, 1,847 m) and Madonie (Pizzo Carbonara, 1,977 m) Mountains in Sicily. The Alpine orogenic has been quite intense, resulting steep, complex reliefs. The intense volcanic activity in the Etna volcano is permanently transforming the mountain relief and strongly influencing the vegetation dynamic as well as human land-uses.

The wide altitudinal range of this ecoregion results in several forest zones. The lowest elevations are characterized by the predominance of mixed sclerophyllous evergreen oak (Quercus ilex, Q. suber) and deciduous (Quercus pubescens, Fraxinus ornus, Ostrya carpinifolia) forests. At medium elevations, mixed deciduous forests (Quercus cerris, Q. pubescens, Q. frainetto, Castanea sativa, Ostrya carpinifolia) predominate.

The high elevations are characterized by an outstanding forest diversity, including a number of endemic and relict species. A sharp north-south gradient of plant communities is found at the highest elevations. Pinus laricio dominates on south-facing slopes with a more Mediterranean cold and xeric bioclimate type. Pinus laricio also dominates the highest elevations up to the timberline at Mt. Etna, colonizing volcanic rock after eruptions along with the endemic Etna birch (Betula aetniensis). The endemic and vulnerable Pinus heldreichii leucodermis only appears in the Pollino Mountains, where it predominates at the highest elevations, often forming mixed pine/beech forest stands. Silver fir (Abies alba) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) predominate on north-facing slopes and foggy, high plains, forming mixed forests where the larico pine often becomes an important component. The only relict stands (less than 100 individuals) of the endemic and very threatened Nebrodi fir (Abies nebrodensis) appear in the Madonie Mountains. Only the Etna volcano has high summits above the timber line, characterized by a thorny cushion shrub community of Astragalus siculus, Berberis aetniensis, and Juniperus communis alpina, as well as the Etna tree-broom (Genista aetniensis).

Biodiversity Features
The ecoregion hosts an outstanding plant diversity. The endemism rate of the Sicilian mountains is higher than 20%. The Sicilian total vascular flora is represented by 2,700 species and 310 endemics, and the Madonie Mountains alone support 50% of Sicily’s flora in less than 2% of the island’s area. The endemism rate of the Calabrian and Basilicata Mountains is between 10-20%.

This ecoregion has a significant faunal diversity, while the number of endemic species is reduced. The rare Sicilian shrew (Crocidura sicula) is the only mammal endemic to Sicily, and persists in the ecoregion’s forests. Large mammals include the Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus), which is absent in Sicily. The Sila and Pollino wolf populations are the largest in Italy. Among other noteworthy large mammals are the Italian roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), the wild cat (Felis silvestris), and the crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata).

The region’s forests also host a number of endemic birds such as the Corsican nuthatch (Sitta whiteheadi) which is ecologically adapted and restricted to mature pine trees of the Pinus laricio old-growth forests. Also present are endangered raptors and rare Paleartic birds. Endemic amphibian species are also distributed in certain mountain areas where conifer and broadleaf forests occur, for example Salamandra salamandra corsica, Discoglossus montalentii, and Euproctus montanus. Among the reptile species, the most representative species of this ecoregion also characterize similar forest ecosystems of mountain conifer and braodleaf mixed forests from the Southern European Mediterranean countries. These include Algyroïdes fitzingeri, Podarcis tiliguerta, and Podarcis sicula.

Current Status
The ecoregion has maintained the majority of its forest cover. Outstanding and extensive old-growth forests have remained until nowadays due to the inaccessibility of these mountain massifs. It is still possible to find very old individuals of laricio pine, natural monuments of about 600 years old, in the Sila Mountains. Human population remains very low and is mainly concentrated in the coastal areas. Nevertheless, grazing and forestry management have considerably modified the forest structure. Clear-cutting practices have lead to even-age stands with very few old trees and a poor plant understorey.

Types and Severity of Threats
Though deforestation has not been very intensive through the ecoregion, there is a high potential for human impact. Forestry management systems are inadequate and usage is overly intense. A certain amount of socio-political instability affects the ecoregion. The deliberate setting of forest fires is often the response to a lack of acceptance of social and political measures, such as the creation of new protected areas. Mismanagement of pastures and grazing, has also considerably increased the risk of forest fire.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER (2000) unit of the same name, and is based on the vegetation coverage of Bohn et al. 2000. The ecoregion includes the sub-Mediterranean subcontinental thermophilous bitter oak forests, montane to altimontane beech and mixed beech forests, and oro-Mediterranean pine forests of southern Italy south of Naples. It also includes the sub-Mediterranean and meso-supra-Mediterranean downy oak forests, montane to altimontane beech and mixed beech forests, and oroxerophytic vegetation of northern Sicily.

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Prepared by: Pedro Regato
Reviewed by: In process