A gigantic inventory of species in Mercantour National Park

Famous for its wolves, Mercantour National Park in the Alps is also home to an extraordinarily rich flora and fauna, which is highly distinctive but relatively unknown. The biggest inventory ever taken in Europe is currently under way, with the aim of identifying species to help protect biodiversity.

JPEG Mercantour is a magnificent playground for naturalists. The national park, which extends over 2,450 km2 in Italy and south-east France, is an area of great contrasts, where valleys and glaciers coexist with Mediterranean landscapes. The altitude ranges from 500 m to the 3,200 m Cime du Gélas, its highest peak. This extraordinary geographical area harbours an exceptional degree of biodiversity. This is why the site has been chosen for the first complete biological inventory – All Taxa Biodiversity Inventories (ATBI) – to be undertaken in Europe. The operation is doubly European in that it covers both the Mercantour Park in France and the Parco Naturale delle Alpi Marittime in Italy, and involves a great many European researchers. This aspect played a role in the choice of this site, as the operation is being conducted at the initiative of a European consortium of leading natural history museums and botanical gardens – the European Distributed Institute of Taxonomy (EDIT) – coordinated by the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

Hundreds of enthusiastic specialists, professional researchers and amateur volunteers are taking turns with the work on the ground. Some work with nets, others with insect traps such as the “Malaise trap”, and others scrape wood or dig the soil. The census, which began in 2007 and is planned to continue until 2017, is producing some spectacular results and identifying thousands of species, insects, molluscs, arachnids, lichens and mosses, dozens of them new to science.

Granted, its scope and amplitude do make it look something of a mission impossible, admits Louis Deharveng, director of the Origine, Structure et Evolution de la Biodiversité (OSEB) laboratory at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in charge of small land invertebrates, which represent potentially the largest (and the least well recorded) part of Mercantour’s biodiversity: “Every tree, every hidden little nook contain hundreds of different creatures from a millimetre to a centimetre long! With each survey, an interception trap brings thousands of specimens. This represents an enormous amount of collecting work, but also of sorting, and it is going to be very difficult to identify all the samples, because that requires extremely specialised knowledge. There are perhaps a few hundred people in the world capable of doing this, each specialising in a particular living group. For the largest insects – certain coleoptera or butterflies for example – we work with societies of entomologists but for some species groups there are no specialists”. The collecting therefore extends to seeking out skills in every country of the world!

These small invertebrates play an essential role in terrestrial ecosystems. So, even if it does not succeed in being totally exhaustive, the operation will make a fundamental contribution to the understanding of living ecosystems. “The aim is to preserve biodiversity and to fight against the extinction of species and to achieve this, we obviously have to find out about them and know where they are!” stresses Louis Deharveng. “They sometimes exist only within a few km2, which makes them vulnerable. Those that live only near snow-beds, for example disappear, when these do. To protect them, we have to understand the ecological but also the historical reasons – the impact of quaternary glaciers in particular. These species are also indicators of changes in the environment that are not obvious, such as disturbances in the soil due to human activity or climate change. Thanks to the inventory, we will see groups that are declining, and those that are increasing, data on which we have very little knowledge and which are essential for managing biodiversity”.

Awareness campaigns for educational purposes related to the inventory are being conducted among the general public, including exhibitions, talks, conferences, publications, summer schools, etc. The Mercantour National Park is indeed very popular among tourists, with over 800,000 visitors coming here every year to climb, ski or hike along its 600 kilometres of paths, or admire the Vallée des Merveilles and its 40,000 prehistoric rock carvings or the Lac d’Allos, Europe’s highest natural high-altitude lake. Being able to learn about the environment by discovering a whole world that is far less visible will now be another reason to visit the park!

Only the United States has implemented a census of such scope, in the Great Smoky Mountains (Appalachians). The Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle is also working on other inventories, on the island of Santo, on Vanuatu, in New Caledonia, in Madagascar, in the caves of southern China, and also in the Fynbos, a fabulous natural vegetation specific to South Africa.

Sylvie Thomas

- Parc National du Mercantour
- 23 rue d’Italie, BP 1316, 06006 Nice Cedex 1
- Tel. 04 93 16 78 88.
- www.mercantour.eu

publié le 06/07/2012

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