An interview with Michele De Sanctis, Department of Environmental Biology, Sapienza University of Rome
Supported by the EU funded project NaturAL, the rangers and monitoring specialists from the Regional Administration of Protected Areas are learning about botanical field research. They are led by a team of experts, one of which is Michele De Sanctis from the Department of Environmental Biology, Sapienza University of Rome.
We had the pleasure to meet Michele and learn about his work.
Tell us something about the fieldwork of a botanist. What do you focus on?
Our fieldwork is always conditioned by the flowering periods, as this is actually when we can collect the data. In Albania the flowering season lasts from April to September, so we use the calmer days of October to analyse and file the collected data. Our objectives are to:
What can you conclude about the flora of protected areas of Albania?
In my opinion, all protected areas are extremely interesting when it comes to flora and vegetation. They host a large number of important species and habitats, very different for each site, and I am grateful for the opportunity to explore them.
Our research so far indicates that Mali i Tomorrit National Park is probably the most fascinating protected area when it comes to flora, as it hosts several steno-endemic species. Endemic species are those that grow only in Albania, and steno-endemic are found only in restricted areas of Albania. For example, crocus (Crocus tomoricus) and astragalus (Astragalus autranii) grow only on these mountains. A great Italian botanist Antonio Baldacci has collected and described them more than a century ago and only recently they have been rediscovered by the Albanian colleagues involved in this Project (Hoda P., Mahmutaj E., and Shuka L.).
Photo by IUCN/M.deSanctis: Crocus tomoricus (left) and Campanula aureliana (right)
A complete mapping and monitoring of their populations is still to be done. We are working on the localization of the populations of campanula (Campanula aureliana), a new species described just last year by Prof. Shuka and Croatian and Italian colleagues. Mali i Tomorrit National Park also hosts a very interesting and rare habitat listed in the Habitats Directive - the forest of The Heldreich's pine (Pinus heldreichii), an amazing tertiary relict. Its ancient origin is clearly visible through the strange bark that looks like an armour worn by Roman legionaries. It can be found only on high altitudes on the mountains in the Balkans and Southern Italy.
Other habitats of interest in Mali i Tomorrit National Park are:
Korab-Koritnik Managed Nature Reserve is the largest protected area we will study, probably the least known and accessible but also teeming with important species and habitats. We have identified several populations of important species there, such as Crocus scardicus. In April at higher altitudes (above 1800m) it forms large and wonderful coloured patches cutting through the last snow cover, embedded in the homogenous yellow of dry herbs are not yet flowering. At lower altitudes another important Crocus species occurs: Crocus veluchensis that forms similar stands, of different colours. This mountain is also home to other significant species, such as the Korab’s yarrow (Achillea pindicola ssp. corabensis), the orchanet (Alkanna scardica) and the Montenegrin rock bells (Edraianthus montenegrinus). Some of the fascinating habitats found here are the wetlands along small high-mountain streams, on the permanently waterlogged soils largely occupied by brown mosses and several small rare sedges (Carex davalliana, Carex flava) and other important species such as the Balkan butterwort (Pinguicola balcanica) and the bog asphodel (Narthecium scardicum).
Photo by IUCN/M.deSanctis: Crocus scardicus in Korab-Koritnik nature reserve
Lake Skadar Managed Nature Reserve is above all of great importance for aquatic flora and vegetation. Exploring the lake in April and May is very exciting, and I had the pleasure to do it with one of the most renowned experts of its flora, Prof. Lefter Kashta. The lake’s water level fluctuates significantly during the year. In spring it gets very high, and one can sail above reeds, small riparian trees almost completely submerged, and other terrestrial plant communities, having the feeling of flying above them due to extremely clear and transparent water. At the same time, looking above the water is nothing less amazing: endless populations of the wonderful European White and Yellow Water-lilies (Nymphaea alba and Nuphar lutea, both threatened according the Albanian Red List) and other rare species such as the Water Caltrop (Trapa natans), the bladderwort (Utricularia australis) and the European frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae). I have already seen these rare species in other countries, but never in such abundance!
Photo by IUCN/M.deSanctis: Nymphea alba in the Lake Skadar nature reserve (left) and professor Kashta with RAPA staff (right)
Although mainly known as home to several important bird species, such as the Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus), Divjaka-Karavasta National Park is characterized by the richness of important habitats. Here one can find a complete series of psammophile communities, from the annual vegetation along the drift line, embryonic shifting dunes and shifting dunes with European beachgrass (Ammophila arenaria), to the back dunes with more mature communities of juniper (Juniperus sp.pl.) and the wooded dunes with pines (Pinus sp. pl.). One can see in abundance also habitats typical for the saltmarshes – they surround most of the large lagoon, and impressive alluvial forests dominated by the white willow (Salix alba), white poplar (Populus alba), narrow-leafed ash (Fraxinus angustifolia), and the common alder (Alnus glutinosa), depending on the humidity of the soil. These habitats are nowadays rare in Europe, given that the fertile land where they grow has in most cases been reclaimed for agricultural purposes. Exploring the lagoons by boat we came across several plant communities that indicate the conservation status of the area. Here, we have relied on the support of colleagues from Albania, Prof. Alfred Mullaj for terrestrial flora and vegetation and Prof. Lefter Kashta for hydrophytic ones.
Bredhi i Hotoves-Dangelli National Park offers impressive landscapes with deep white calcareous canyons covered by brilliant evergreen “macchia”, where transparent waters flow out of amazing waterfalls. Here one can observe very rare and attractive species such as Greek strawberry tree (Arbutus andrachne), white sage (Salvia candidissima), Centaurea zuicchariniana and Athamanta macedonica subsp. albanica. The name of this park comes from one of the most important habitats here - a large forest of Bulgarian fir (Abies borisii-regis).
Photo by IUCN/M.deSanctis: Viola albanica (left) and Aubrieta gracilis (right) found in Mali i Tomorrit National Park
What do you hope to achieve through the fieldwork?
The collected data has enabled us to identify the main values of each protected area, and has been used to develop the monitoring protocol for future assessment of their conservation status and for the purposes of drafting management actions to improve or maintain it. Here I am referring to the natural values I mentioned above, but also the related ecosystem services of great importance for the local population, such as tourism, timber and no-timber products, pastures for livestock. Protected area management means finding equilibrium between these activities and the conservation of natural resources – assuring the so called sustainable development.
At the same time we had training with protected areas’ staff. They participate in our field missions, learning about data collection and the related scientific background. Positive achievements through active participation, interest and efforts by various RAPA rangers involved are already visible. We are also preparing the monitoring protocols for habitats and species that park rangers will be able to follow independently in the future. For some of the protocols collaboration between protected areas’ administrators and Albanian botanists has been established. This kind of collaboration is crucial for the management of protected areas. One of the already visible results of our Project is precisely the establishment of this relationship, as all our activities are planned and carried out jointly by the Albanian scientific community and the park administrators.
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