Mountain Biodiversity as a sentinel of environmental change

Lead Author: CNR/PNGP (Ramona Viterbi, Cristiana Cerrato, Antonello Provenzale)
Contributors: Anna Cord, Andreas Dittrich (UFZ), Ruth Sonnenschein (EURAC), Damiano Pasetto (EPFL), Jonathan Giezendanner (EPFL)


The current loss of biodiversity requires long-term monitoring of the distribution of living organisms, particularly in regions, such as mountains, that are highly sensitive to climatic and environmental changes. Mountain landscapes, owing to their physical, topographic and climatic heterogeneity, create a mosaic of habitats along the altitudinal gradient (Körner 2000, Beniston 2003). Such heterogeneity determines high levels of biodiversity, usually higher than those recorded in adjacent lowland areas (Körner 2000, Theurillat et al. 2003).

Mountain habitats support some of the world’s most rare and fragile ecosystems (Diaz et al. 2003, Pauchard et al. 2009). Populations at high elevations are usually small, isolated and prone to local extinction, are often poor dispersers and are characterised by high levels of endemism (McNeely 1990, Boggs and Murphy 1997, EEA 2010). Mountains are very sensitive to environmental changes and global warming (Huber et al. 2005, Beniston 2006) hosting a high number of species adapted to low temperature conditions (Pauli et al. 2004). Long-term records provide evidence for ongoing climate warming in mountain environments and in the Alps (Beniston 2006, Auer 2007, Rebetez and Reinhard 2008), that has already impacted the life cycle, pattern of activity, distribution and range size of various plant and animal species (Thuiller et al. 2005, Pauli et al. 2007, Bässler et al. 2010) and increased the risk of mountain biodiversity loss (Dirnböck et al. 2011).

To determine the current conditions and potentially changing state of mountain biodiversity, in 2007 three alpine parks in northwestern Italy (lead by GPNP) started a field program to determine the factors which influence animal biodiversity and identify the most appropriate methods for periodically repeatable monitoring. Twelve altitudinal transects (from montane to alpine belt) were chosen, each composed of 4-7 sampling units, for a total of 69 monitored plots. In each station, five taxonomic groups (carabids, butterflies, spiders, staphylinids, birds) were systematically sampled and topographic, environmental and micro-climatic variables were recorded. The aim was to assess the distribution of different taxa along altitudinal gradients and the relative influence of geographical, environmental and climatic factors. This monitoring program was later extended to other national parks in the Italian Alps and it is currently ongoing, with extensions to new monitored taxa (ants).

The storyline aims at making best use of the available data collected in such ongoing monitoring programs, developing and implementing appropriate analysis tools as well as models relating various biodiversity measures to environmental and climatic parameters. Predictive modelling approaches will also allow for assessing the potential future state of animal biodiversity in the Alps.




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