Shrines in Central Italy conserve plant diversity and large trees
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Sacred natural sites (SNS) are instances of biocultural landscapes protected for spiritual motives. These sites frequently host important biological values in areas of Asia and Africa, where traditional resource management is still upheld by local communities. In contrast, the biodiversity value of SNS has hardly been quantitatively tested in Western contexts, where customs and traditions have relatively lost importance due to modernization and secularization. To assess whether SNS in Western contexts retain value for biodiversity, we studied plant species composition at 30 SNS in Central Italy and compared them with a paired set of similar but not sacred reference sites. We demonstrate that SNS are important for conserving stands of large trees and habitat heterogeneity across different land-cover types. Further, SNS harbor higher plant species richness and a more valuable plant species pool, and significantly contribute to diversity at the landscape scale. We suggest that these patterns are related not only to pre-existent features, but also to traditional management. Conservation of SNS should take into account these specificities, and their cultural as well as biological values, by supporting the continuation of traditional management practices.
KeywordsBiocultural conservation Biodiversity Central Italy Old-growth forests Sacred natural sites Traditional management
We express our gratitude to the local communities that welcomed us to their sacred sites. We thank Andy Hector for his encouragement and support, Mariele Signorini, and Fabio Conti for precious advices on local vegetation, Elisa Locandro for assistance with sampling, Elena Conti and Reto Nyffeler for access to herbarium facilities at the University of Zurich, and Giovanni Roffarè for invaluable contributions to plant identification. FF was funded by the Research Fund of the University of Zurich and acknowledges support from the Cogito Foundation. RG gratefully acknowledges the DAAD scholarship (nr. 50015559) for a two-month stay at the Hannover University, Institut für Geobotanik, where he received valuable suggestions and reading assignments from Hansjörg Küster. Finally, we thank two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments that improved this article.
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