Biodiversity gradients in the Alps: the overriding importance of elevation

Original Paper
Part of the Topics in Biodiversity and Conservation book series (TOBC, volume 7)


Land abandonment is causing woodland expansion and loss of open habitats in the Alps, coupled with a shift in forestry practices from coppice management to high forest. Despite such rapid large-scale changes, there has been very little investigation of the environmental predictors of biodiversity in the Alpine landscape. We assessed the richness of amphibians, reptiles and breeding birds (n = 189 species), used as a surrogate of biodiversity, in 58 quadrats of 100 km2, located within a well surveyed area of the province of Trento (central-eastern Italian Alps). The surrogates were then related to a series of environmental variables by means of stepwise multiple regression. Depending on the surrogate analysed, species richness declined linearly or quadratically with elevation, and increased with habitat heterogeneity and the availability of grassland and arid-rocky habitats. The same results were obtained when incorporating a measure of species threat into the biodiversity estimates. Different surrogates were positively inter-correlated, probably because of a common response to the same factor, namely elevation, which was the only variable to enter all models. Such elevational gradient produced a clear biodiversity peak in low-elevation areas, generating potential conflict between efficient biodiversity conservation and economic interests linked to human development, a scenario which probably applies to many mountain regions worldwide. The current network of protected areas was quite satisfactory in terms of area covered but biased towards high-elevation areas, of high scenic beauty but relatively low in animal biodiversity value. Low-elevation reserves were small and isolated. Proposed conservation targets include the establishment of corridors increasing the connectivity of low-elevation reserves and the promotion of incentives for the extensive management of grassland, an agro-ecosystem of high historical and biological value.


Alps Biodiversity Elevation Grassland Habitat heterogeneity Protected areas Reserve network Species richness Vertebrates 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Austin MP (2002) Spatial prediction of species distribution: an interface between ecological theory and statistical modelling. Ecol Model 157:101–118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Austin GE, Thomas CJ, Houston DC, Thompson BA (1996) Predicting the spatial distribution of buzzard Buteo buteo nesting areas using a Geographical Information Systemand remote sensing. J Appl Ecol 33:1541–1550CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barbaro L, Dutoit T, Cozic P (2001) A six-year experimental restoration of biodiversity by shrub-clearing and grazing in calcareous grasslands of the French Alps. Biodivers Conserv 10:119–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beniston M (ed) (1994) Mountain environments in changing climates. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  5. Boone RB, Krohn WB (2000) Partitioning sources of variation in vertebrate species richness. J Biogeogr 27:457–470CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bosch J, Boyero L, Martìnez-Solano I (2004) Spatial scales for the management of amphibians populations. Biodivers Conserv 13:409–420CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brown JH (2001) Mammals on mountainsides: elevational patterns of diversity. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 10:101–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Caldonazzi M, Pedrini P, Zanghellini S (eds) (2002) Atlante degli anfibi e dei rettili della provincial di Trento (Amphibia, Reptilia), 1987–1996, con aggiornamenti al 2001. Stud Trent Sci Nat Acta Biol 77:1–173Google Scholar
  9. CEC. Commission of the European Communities, Directorate-General—Environment, Nuclear Safety, Civil Protection (1993) CORINE Land cover—guide technique. Office for official publications of the european communities, BruxellesGoogle Scholar
  10. Cernusca A, Tappeiner U, Bayfield N (1999) Land-use changes in European mountain ecosystems. Blackwell Wissenschafts-Verlag, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  11. CIPRA (2001) Rapporto sullo stato delle Alpi 2: dati, fatti, problemi, proposte. Centro Documentazione Alpina, TorinoGoogle Scholar
  12. Cornell HV, Lawton JH (1992) Species interactions, local and regional processes, and limits to the richness of ecological communities: a theoretical perspective. J Anim Ecol 61:1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Crawley MJ (1993) GLIM for ecologists. Blackwell Science, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  14. Dirnböck T, Dullinger S, Grabherr G (2003) A regional impact assessment of climate and land-use change on alpine vegetation. J Biogeogr 30:401–407CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Entwistle A, Dunstone N (eds) (2000) Priorities for the conservation of mammalian diversity: has the Panda had its day? Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  16. Forman RTT (1995) Land mosaics: the ecology of landscapes and regions. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  17. Franklin JF (1993) Preserving biodiversity: species, ecosystems or landscapes? Ecol Appl 3:202–205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Gandolfo C, Sulli M (1993) Studi sul clima del Trentino per ricerche dendroclimatologiche e di ecologia forestale. Provincia Autonoma di Trento, TrentoGoogle Scholar
  19. Gaston KJ (ed) (1996a) Biodiversity: a biology of numbers and difference. Blackwell Science, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  20. Gaston KJ (1996b) Species richness: measure and measurement. In: Gaston KJ (ed) Biodiversity: a biology of numbers and difference. Blackwell Science, Oxford, pp 77–113Google Scholar
  21. Gaston KJ, Williams PH (1996) Spatial patterns in taxonomic diversity. In: Gaston KJ (ed) Biodiversity: a biology of numbers and difference. Blackwell Science, Oxford, pp 202–229Google Scholar
  22. Green RH (1979) Sampling design and statistical methods for environmental biologists. John Wiley & Sons, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  23. Hansen A, Rotella J 1999 Abiotic factors. In: Hunter ML (ed) Maintaining biodiversity in forest ecosystems. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 161–209Google Scholar
  24. Hansen AJ, Rotella JJ, Kraska MPV, Brown D (1999) Dynamic habitat and population analysis: an approach to resolve the biodiversity manager’s dilemma. Ecol Appl 9:1459–1476Google Scholar
  25. Harcourt AH (2000) Coincidence and mismatch of biodiversity hostspots: a global survey for the order primates. Biol Conserv 93:163–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hutchings MJ, John EA, Stewart AJA (2000) The ecological consequences of environmental heterogeneity. Blackwell Science, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  27. I.P.L.A. (2000) Sweet chestnut coppice. Blu Edizioni, CuneoGoogle Scholar
  28. Korner C, Spehn EM (eds) (2003) Mountain biodiversity: a global assessment. CRC Press, BaselGoogle Scholar
  29. Krebs CJ (1998) Ecological methodology. HarperCollins, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Laiolo P, Dondero F, Ciliento E, Rolando A (2004) Consequences of pastoral abandonment for the structure and diversity of the alpine avifauna. J Appl Ecol 41:294–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lichtenbergen E (1994) Die Alpen in Europa. Osterreichische Akademie der Wissenschften, Veröff. Komm. Humanökologie 5:53–86Google Scholar
  32. Lomolino MV (2001) Elevation gradients of species-density: historical and perspective views. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 10:3–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Marchesi L, Sergio F (2005) Distribution, density, diet and productivity of the Scops Owl Otus scops in the Italian Alps. Ibis 147:176–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Marchesi L, Sergio F, Pedrini P (2006) Density, nest-site selection, diet and productivity of the Tawny Owl Strix aluco in the Alps: implications of temporal changes in forest dynamics. Bird Study 53:310–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Margules CR, Pressey RL (2000) Systematic conservation planning. Nature 405:243–253PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Matthews JD (1989) Silvicultural systems. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  37. Miller RI (ed) (1994) Mapping the diversity of nature. Chapman & Hall, LondonGoogle Scholar
  38. Norris K, Pain DJ (eds) (2002) Conserving bird biodiversity: general principles and their application. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  39. Odasso M (2002) I tipi forestali del Trentino: catalogo, guida al riconoscimento, localizzazione e caratteristiche ecologico-vegetazionali. Centro di Ecologia Alpina, TrentoGoogle Scholar
  40. Owen JG (1990) Patterns of mammalian species richness in relation to temperature, productivity, and variance in elevation. J Mammal 71:1–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Pain DJ, Pienkowski MW (eds) (1997) Farming and birds in Europe: the Common Agricultural Policy and its implications for bird conservation. Academic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  42. PAT (1995) Rapporto sullo stato dell’ambiente. Provincia Autonoma di Trento, TrentoGoogle Scholar
  43. PAT (1997) I biotopi tutelati. Provincia Autonoma di Trento, TrentoGoogle Scholar
  44. Pedrini P, Caldonazzi M, Zanghellini S (eds) (2005) Atlante degli Uccelli nidificanti e svernanti in provincia di Trento. Saud Trent Sci Nat Acta Biol 80 (2003) Suppl. 2:1–692Google Scholar
  45. Purvis A, Hector A (2000) Getting the measure of biodiversity. Nature 405:212–219PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Rahbek C (1997) The elevational gradient of species richness: a uniform pattern? Ecography 18:200–205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Ray N, Lehman A, Joly P (2002) Modelling spatial distribution of amphibian populations: a GIS approach based on matrix permeability. Biodivers Conserv 11:2143–2165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rice WR (1989) Analyzing tables of statistical tests. Evolution 43:223–225CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Rosenzweig ML (1995) Species diversity in space and time. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  50. Sergio F, Bogliani G (2000) Hobby Falco subbuteo nest-site selection and productivity in relation to intensive agriculture and forestry. J Wildl Manage 64:637–646CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sergio F, Pedrini P, Marchesi L (2003) Adaptive selection of foraging and nesting habitat by black kites (Milvus migrans) and its implications for conservation: a multi-scale approach. Biol Conserv 112:351–362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sergio F, Rizzolli F, Marchesi L, Pedrini P (2004) The importance of interspecific interactions for breeding-site selection: Peregrine Falcons seek proximity to Raven nests. Ecography 27:818–826CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Sergio F, Scandolara C, Marchesi L, Pedrini P, Penteriani V (2005) Effect of agro-forestry and landscape changes on common buzzards (Buteo buteo) in the Alps: implications for conservation. Anim Conserv 8:17–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Servizio Foreste (1999) Carta fisionomica della copertura forestale in Trentino. Provincia Autonoma di Trento, TrentoGoogle Scholar
  55. Shafer C (1994) Beyond park boundaries. In: Cook EA, van Lier HN (eds) Landscape planning and ecological networks. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 201–223Google Scholar
  56. Sokal RR, Rohlf FJ (1981) Biometry. W.H. Freeman, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  57. Soulé ME (1991) Conservation: tactics for constant crisis. Science 253:744–750PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sutherland WJ (ed) 1998. Conservation science and action. Blackwell Science, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  59. Tilman D (2000) Causes, consequences and ethics of biodiversity. Nature 405:208–211PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Tucker GM, Evans MI (1997) Habitats for birds in Europe: a conservation strategy for the wider environment. BirdLife International, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  61. Tucker GM, Heath MF (eds) (1994) Birds in Europe: their conservation status. BirdLife International, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  62. Underhill L, Gibbons D (2002) Mapping and monitoring bird populations: their conservation uses. In: Norris K, Pain DJ (eds) Conserving bird biodiversity: general principles and their application. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 34–60Google Scholar
  63. Wallace JM, Hobbs PV (1977) Atmospheric science. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  64. Wessels KJ, Freitag S, van Jaarsveld AS (1999) The use of land facets as biodiversity surrogates during reserve selection at a alocal scale. Biol Conserv 89:21–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Wessels KJ, Reyers B, Van Jaaresveld AS (2000) Incorporating land cover information into regional biodiversity assessments in South Africa. Anim Conserv 3:67–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. White D, Minotti PG, Barczak MJ, Sifneos JC, Freemark KE, Santelmann MV, Steinitz CF, Kiester AR, Preston EM (1997) Assessing risk to biodiversity from future landscape change. Conserv Biol 11:349–360CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Applied BiologyEstación Biológica de Doñana, C.S.I.C.SevilleSpain
  2. 2.Raptor Conservation Research UnitTrento Museum of Natural SciencesTrentoItaly

Personalised recommendations