Discovering nature in Italy

Italy hosts among the richest biodiversity in Europe. The variety of geographic, geo-morphological and climatic conditions that characterizes its territory makes it an extraordinary concentration area of ​​both species and habitats.

In Italy, several “high-density” points of biodiversity of planetary importance (called “hot spots” in scientific terms) have been identified, such as those located in the Tyrrhenian Islands, in the Maritime Alps and Liguria. Sicily and Sardinia, the two main Italian islands and the two biggest one in the whole Mediterranean basin, are also one of the richest area in the whole of Europe for endemism and highly localised and endangered species of fauna and flora.

Italy is the European country with the highest number of species. It hosts about half of the plant species and about a third of all animal species present in Europe. Some groups, such as some invertebrate families, are present in double or triple numbers, if not even more, than in other European countries.

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Andrea Corso searching for the endemic dragonfly Italian Goldenring (Cordulegaster trinacriae) in central Italy.

All this reflects the so-called latitudinal gradient of species richness, according to which diversity decreases with increasing latitude, that is, moving from the equator to the poles. As far as animal biodiversity is concerned, it is estimated that in Italy there are 58,000 species, with a long list of endemic species.

Specifically, 98% of these species consists of invertebrates (55,000 species), protozoa (1,812 species) and vertebrates (1,258 species). The richest phylum of course, with over 46,000 species, is that of Arthropods, among them a massive number of endemism unique to Italy such as butterflies, beetles, spiders, dragonflies.

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Italian Goldenring (Cordulegaster trinacriae), endemic of central-southern Italy is one of the rarets dragonfly in Europe, this is the first ever photographic evidence of its presence in the Abruzzo region, the northernmost site found so far, digiscoped by using Leica APO Televid and Leica Smartphone adapter (Andrea Corso).

Particularly rich of endemism are the amphibians and reptiles as the European Cave Salamanders (Speleomantes sp.)*, with for example five endemic species from Sardinia (more than any other place), and the lizards, for example the Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis siculus) and Sicilian Wall lizard (P. waglerianus), including one of the most localised, rarest and endangered reptile in the Western Palearctic, the Aeolian Wall Lizad (P.raffoneae or raffonei – auctores).

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A Woodcchat Shrike (Lanius senator senator) killing and feeding on an Italian endemic lizard: Italian Wall Lizard Podarcis sicula

Regarding birds, the number of species lies around 550 up to 2017 (latest additions: Black Heron, Pied Kingfisher, Olive-tree Warbler, Atlas Flycatcher, White-crowned Black Wheatear). Very few of the birds are actually strictly endemic of Italy, as most are in fact sub-endemic (having the core-range of breeding population in Italy, but then breeding elsewhere as well with smaller populations):

Moltoni’s Wabler, the recently re-described and revalued Tyrrhenian Spotted Flycatcher (or, as falsely named in English, Mediterranean Flycatcher), Ashy-headed Wagtail,  “Balearic Woodchat Shrike” (another quite misleading English name), Lilford’s Woodpecker and so on. If the split will be accepted, the only strictly endemic bird would be Sicilian Rock Partridge (Alectoris whitakerii), native in Sicily only and endangered due to hunting.

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Sicilian Rock Partridge (Alectors whitakerii), an adult male singing at Iblei Mountains, Siracusa, Sicily (photo by Angelo Zimmitti)

During this spring and summer, I went all around Italy to study some of the Italian endemism or endangered species: so I was all around Siciliy insSpring, to check some sites for Sicilian Rock Partridge, then around the Majella National Park to search for the Apennine yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina (v.) pachypus) and monitoring the northernmost area of Italian Goldenring (Cordulegaster trinacriae), one of the few European endemic dragonflies and one of the rarest, searching for this species also all along the Peninsula from Lazio and Abruzzo down to Campania, Calabria, ending in Sicily.

Then, I was watching European Lanner, and a mixture of sadness and joy pervaded me when I managed to find some of the remaining few breeding pairs with fledged juveniles (less than 50% of the whole Italian population had a successful breeding season in 2017).  My best companion, alongside with my best friends and zoologist colleagues as Ottavio Janni,  Miki Viganò, Marco Carafa, Andrea Pulvirenti, Raimondo Finati, Roberto Casalini, Verena Penna and others, were of course my Leica instruments – the Leica Noctivid and the Leica APO Televid.

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Apennine yellow-bellied Toad (Bombina (v.) pachypus), one of the rarest and most declining Amphibians in Europe, here photographed at the Majella National Park, Abruzzo (Andrea Corso)

Some days between June and August were so hot, so humid and sunny, that all birds appeared with usual binos almost completely out of focus or even black due to the strong light incidence. But thanks to the Leica Noctivid 10×42 I managed always to get the finest details of the plumages I needed in order to identify the birds I was studying. Its close focus distance gave me the possibility to identify the dragonflies first, before netting them with the entomological net, photograph them and release them shortly afterwards.

Even more incredible, using the Leica Smartphone adaptor, I was able to take some digiscoping shots of the Italian Goldenring and these were the very first photographic evidences ever obtained of the species in Abruzzo region, the northernmost site ever found for the species. Its distribution range is therefore much wider than we thought (Corso, et al. in prep.).

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One of the rarest mammal in Italy and Europe, Marsican Brown Bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus), photographed at a very long range at Majella National Park, Abruzzo, digiscoped by using Leica APO Televid and Leica Smartphone adaptor (Andrea Corso)

Using the smaller Leica APO Televid 62, I was able to have long walks along the mountains chains, walking silently over the small, off-road, dusty trails and tracks. My poor back was so safe and once I needed to identify a distant flying falcons or a perched dragonfly, still with a hard-to-beat clear image resolution and extremely sharp details.

At the end of the day, I was really happy: the joy of nature observation was filling my heart, and the satisfaction of having done something important for nature and biodiversity protection in Italy made me feel good. Thanks Leica for supporting me on that matter!

 

 

* Sarrabus’ cave salamander (S. sarrabusensis)
Ambrosi’s cave salamander (S. ambrosii)
Monte Albo cave salamander (S. flavus)
Imperial cave salamander (S. imperialis)
Italian cave salamander (S. italicus)
Supramonte cave salamander (S. supramontis)

 

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