Biodiversity Hotspot Alps


The Alps – a European Biodiversity Hotspot

A female Moorland Clouded Yellow (Colias palaneo), a endangered Alpine species on Arnica montana. (Source: KOHLER, Y. & M. STOECKL.)

Biodiversity is not evenly distributed on Earth. It is consistently richer in the tropics and other localized regions. Regions with a high level of endemic species and a large biological diversity are designed as biodiversity hotspots (CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL 2007).

Natural Biodiversity

The Alps contain some of the last isolated and wild areas that still exist in Central Europe. In terms of floristics, they are the richest region of Europe; approximately three quarters of the vascular plants of the entire European continent grow in the Alpine region (WWF 2004). Many species of international interest can be found there, such as endemic species or species of the European habitat and bird directive.

Because of their importance for European and global biodiversity, the Alps belong to the most important ecoregions of the world to conserve the global biodiversity (WWF 2004) (1).


A listing of the plant and animal diversity in the alps (Source: WWF (2004).

Like an island isolated in the middle of the ocean, the Alps host some unique species that do not live anywhere else in the world: the endemic species. These are species restricted to a specific territory and can be found nowhere else. These species appeared because of the geographic isolation of the area. Ecosystem processes are the origin of their adaptation and specialisation. Their disappearance in these specific areas will remove them definitely from the surface of the Earth. Among the plant species growing in the Alps, 350 species (8%) are endemic to the Alps or certain specific regions of the Alpine arc. Examples of such species are the Saxifrage species Saxifraga florulenta, a plant only found in the massif of the Mercantour or the subspecies Papaver alpinum kerneri, an Alpine Poppy only found in the north east of the Alps. Endemic species are mostly found in high altitudes where particularly hostile living conditions limit the plant growth (DUPUIS 2006).


A beautiful example of a Salamandra lanzai native only in the Cottian Alps in the west of the Piemont (Source:F. ANDREONE, Wikimedia Commons)
There are also some endemic animals in the Alps, like the Alpine mouse (Apodemus alpicola) or a salamander species of the Monte Viso area (Salamandra lanzai).

As well, the region is of great importance for birds. There are about 200 bird species breeding in the Alps and about 200 other species migrating through this region. Species that were once hunted by humans, such as the bearded vulture or the golden eagle were at a later stage preserved or reintroduced successfully in the Alps (WWF 2004).

The importance of the Alps for the different Alpine countries and regions can be demonstrated by an example from Germany: 342 of the 2727 plant species of Bavaria are only represented in the Alps. Among the animals, there are also a large number of species whose presence in Germany is limited to the Alps, such as the ibex and a number of bird species (Wallcreeper, Ptarmigan) and insects (azure hawker). For some animals, the Bavarian Alps are even of Alpine wide significance (white-backed Woodpecker or endemic and subendemic species like the Alchemilla species Alchemilla cleistophylla (BUND NATURSCHUTZ IN BAYERN 2004).
Further Readings & Links

An overview of the measures for species and habitats conservation in the Alps.

WWF (2004)
The Alps - a unique natural heritage. A Common Vision for the Conservation of their Biodiversity.

Man-Made Biodiversity

However, the exceptional Alpine diversity is not only due to natural conditions, it is also the result of cultivation and traditions. The Alpine diversity was created by human activity in the course of centuries. Without traditional land use patterns, some habitats such as the Alpine pastures of the montane level would not exist.

A species rich Alpine meadow (Source: KOHLER, Y. & M.STOECKL).

The traditional agriculture of this mountain region plays an important role for biodiversity. Mountain agriculture reached its biggest extension at the beginning of the 19th century. It was probably also in that period that habitats and biological diversity of the cultivated Alpine landscape was at its highest level. Since then, the modernisation of agriculture has resulted in a considerable diminution of the variety of landscapes and a loss of local species and races. Structural elements of the landscape such as hedges, isolated trees, stonewalls and -heaps have mostly disappeared.

As soon as a change in the type of land use occurs, it causes a modification in the flora and fauna (TASSER 2004). The change from meadow to pasture can be taken as an example: The meadows between 1800 and 2200 m above sea level are part of the richest plant association of Europe with up to 80 different plant species per hundred square meters. The great floristic variety attracts insects such as butterflies. The variety of species in a pasture is significantly lower. Moreover, intensely used meadows of lower Alpine valleys only host about ten different plant species.

The changes in agriculture do not only affect the natural diversity, but also the diversity of traditional crops and domestic animals. Since the effects of intensification and globalisation have reached the Alps, many local races of vegetables and livestock breeds have also disappeared. The Évolène Cattle for example is an old dairy cattle breed from the Valais canton of Switzerland now threatened with extinction.

Another aspect is the expansion of Alpine forests. Plant diversity is two times higher in pastures than in forests, and species of cultivated landscapes are often more endangered than species living in forests. The extension of the forests has therefore a negative impact on species diversity in the Alps.

Like in other geographically fragmented mountain areas, the people of the Alps have developed a rich tradition of cultures, including languages, and traditional agricultural knowledge commonly promoting sustainable production systems. The diversity of landscapes, and consequently the associated biological diversity is thus closely related to this fact.

(1) The WWF identified 238 priority ecoregions in the world. As regions of high biological diversity (they give habitat to about 90% of all plant and animal species) the conservation of these ecoregions essentially contributes to the conservation of the global biodiversity.

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OECD (2002)
This study describes the biological resources of Austria's Alpine and mountain regions and the main forces of change contributing to the loss of biodiversity.