Heritage in the Natural Environment
The Carpathian Mountains are amongst the most pristine ecosystems left in Europe. Home to many of the last great wilderness areas within Europe, the Carpathians cradle a region with “exceptional levels of biodiversity, such as high species richness or endemism, or those with unusual ecological or evolutionary phenomena”. The rich natural landscape includes the continent’s most extensive range of montane and old-growth forest as well as most of the European populations of large carnivores and large herbivores (chamois, European bison).
The Carpathians are acknowledged for their relatively large percentage of natural and semi-natural forests, occurring either in higher elevations or in areas of rugged topography with very limited access. Many natural and semi-natural forests of the Western Carpathians are now protected in nature reserves and national parks. In the Eastern and Southern Carpathians, the area of near-natural is declining due to logging in remote mountain areas. The lower plants, lichens and fungi associated with the old-growth forests, and especially with dead wood, are still poorly known. However, one can expect that these ecosystems harbour a rich variety of rare species, exterminated elsewhere due to the intense forms of forest management.
The Carpathians form a natural bridge between western and Eastern Europe for species migration and genetic exchange. They contain some of the most intact ecosystems and are home to a wealth of indigenous species. For example, 2,000 plant species grow in the eastern-most part of the ecoregion, and over 100 of them are endemic. Elevation extremes also add to the diversity.
The vegetation of the Carpathians displays a pronounced zonation.
The foothills are mostly covered by mixed deciduous forests, dominated by pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), lime (Tilia cordata) and hornbean (Carpinus betulus) in the north, and by various oak species (Quercus sessilis, Q. cerris, Q. pubescens, Q. frainetto) in the south.
The montane zone, between 600 and 1,100 m in the north and between 650 and 1,450 m in the south, is dominated by two major species: European beech (Fagus sylvatica) and silver fir (Abies alba). Nearly pure beech forests dominate the montane zone in some mountain ranges in the Western Carpathians (Bile Karpaty, Male Karpaty, Tribec), the Eastern Carpathians (Vihorlat, Bukovske Vrchy, Bieszczady) and the Southern Carpathians. In most areas beech is mixed with silver fir, Norway spruce (Picea abies), and sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus). In some places the montane zone is dominated by conifers, usually a mixture of silver fir and Norway spruce (Tatras, Moravske Beskydy, Oravska Magura in the Western Carpathians; Gorgany, Czornohora, and Munti Bistrei in the Eastern Carpathians).
The subalpine zone (1,100-1,400 m in the north, 1,400-1,900 m in the south) consists of almost pure Norway spruce forests, with a small admixture of rowan (Sorbus aucuparia). Stone pine (Pinus cembra) occurs at the alpine timberline in the highest mountain ranges (Tatras, Czornohora, Marmures, Fagaras, Retezat) of the Carpathians. At the timberline belt of the Tatras mixed Pinus cembra-Larix decidua forests grow, similar to those in central Alps. Above timberline (1,400 m in the north-western Carpathians to 1,900 m in the south), there is a distinct krummholz zone consisting of dense thickets of mountain pine (Pinus mugo), dwarf juniper (Juniperus communis subsp. nana) and green alder (Alnus viridis). Above the krummholz zone occur lush alpine meadows, except on the highest peaks in the Tatras, Fagaras, Parâng, and Retezat, which are mostly rocky or covered with very sparse alpine vegetation. The Bieszczady Mountains in the Eastern Carpathians lack the subalpine spruce forest zone. Here, the timberline of dwarfed beeches (at approximately 1,200 meters) directly borders the alpine meadows.
Flora in the Carpathians
The flora of the Carpathians is very specific to its surroundings, as is it bountiful in rare and endemic plants. It can now be asserted that the native flora of the Carpathians is among the richest on the European continent. It is composed of 3,988 species and subspecies belonging to 131 families and 710 genera. The native Carpathian flora makes up approximately 30% of the 12,500 total for all European floras.
The 383 species and subspecies of unquestionable taxonomic rank and 99 micro species of genera Alchemilla, Rubus, Sorbus and Hieracium are endemic to Carpathian flora. The diversity and richness of native flora is also due to Atlantic, Central, Northern and Eastern European, Mediterranean and Asian floristic elements which meet in the Carpathians.
The largest concentrations of endemic plant species are in the Tatras with a count of 481 endemic plants (Saxifraga wahlenbergii, Delphinium oxysepalum, Dianthus, Soldanella carpatica, Festuca tatrae, Cerastium tatrae, Dianthus praecox). Other areas rich in endemic species include the high mountain ranges of the Eastern and Southern Carpathians.
All the rare and endangered plants in the region are legally protected, and most of the highest concentrations of endemic plants are located in strictly protected areas (i.e., Tatras Biosphere Reserve on the border between Poland and Slovakia, Carpathian National Park in Ukraine, Retezat National Park in Romania).
Among the rare and protected plants of the Carpathians are several woody species: the stone pine (Pinus cembra), mountain pine (Pinus mugo), and the European yew (Taxus baccata).
Fauna in the Carpathians
Owing to its relatively intact habitats and particularly extensive forest complexes, the Carpathians are one of Europe’s most valuable refuges of primeval forest fauna. This is possibly the last place in Europe where all “big game” species can be found and which supports viable populations of large carnivores. An estimated 8,000 brown bears (Ursus arctos), 4,000 wolves (Canis lupus), and 3,000 lynxes (Lynx lynx) can still be found here. The Carpathians harbour important populations of endangered species, such as the European bison (Bison bonasus), the Tatra Mountain Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra tatrica) and the Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca).
The Carpathians are also one of the last European refuges of the wild cat, and a nesting site of the golden eagle. It is also the only mountain range in Europe with a free ranging population of European bison, of which population numbers are estimated to be about 160 in the Bieszczady Mountains in Poland and about 220 in the Ukrainian Carpathians.
The Carpathians are a refuge for nesting bird species such as the Lesser spotted eagle and the globally threatened Imperial eagle. The region represents a real stronghold for these species, hosting nearly 28–40% (1,500–2,700 pairs) and 20% to 45% (85 pairs) of their European populations, respectively. The dense deciduous and mixed forests provide a home for species such as the White–backed woodpecker and the Ural owl. The population of the White-backed woodpecker in the Carpathians is estimated to include up to 30% (11,400 pairs) of its entire European population. The number of pairs of the Ural owl living in the Carpathians represents nearly 20% (2,285 pairs) of the entire European population (excluding Russia).
Other noteworthy species of the Carpathian forests include the Black stork (Ciconia nigra), Grey–headed woodpecker (Picus canus), Black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius), Three–toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus), Tengmalm’s owl (Aegolius funereus) and Red–breasted flycatcher (Ficedula parva). Typical mountain species, such as the Rock thrush and Wall creeper, also find a valuable habitat in the Carpathians, reaching the northern limit of their range. Other valuable mountain species include the Water pipit (Anthus spinoletta) (20% of the European population) and the Alpine accentor (Prunella collaris). A total number of 31 reptile and amphibian species have been recorded in the Carpathians, out of which 17 species have been recognized as endangered and/or characteristic for the region. The number of invertebrate species in the Carpathian Mountains is high with many unique and endemic insect species being found there.