Montagne della Duchessa Regional Riserve is a biodiversity hotspot over the entire life spectrum: species, plant and animal communities, ecosystems, landscapes. We still don't know if this high level of biodiversity exists also at genes and populations levels; what we know is that, as time goes on, our knowledge on local wildlife increases, as well as discoveries and surprises.

The first census on animal species was carried out in 1993, when a team of professionals wrote the reserve management plan, i.e. "Plan for land protection and use", which indicates a strong link between the conservation of species and habitat and the use of natural resources. In the plan there were listed 227 insect species, 9 amphibian species, 10 reptiles, 97 birds, 38 mammals.

The number of insect species is certainly higher (insects are the actual rulers of the world both for species number and for population dimension), but in the last five years also new vertebrate species have been added to the list.

Regarding micromammals, in 2008 a specific survey has been carried out by the Reserve employees under the coordination and financial support of the Regional Parks Agency (ARP, ); during the survey we found the Eurasian pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus), the wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), the yellow-necked field mouse (Apodemus flavicollis), the bank vole (Clethrionomys glareolus). A previous field survey was carried out in 2002 - 2004 by biologists A. Buscemi and P. Tuccinardi; they analysed the presence and distribution of the European snow vole (Chionomys nivalis) in the Duchessa mountains. This nice but shy rodent lives on screes, ridges, and grasslands at high elevation; it is a Eurasian species and its geographic range in Italy is centred on the Alps, but there are also some isolated disjunctions on the central Apennines, where few small and isolated populations are currently present. One of these populations lives on the Duchessa massif, and for this reason is must be preserved. The over mentioned species live and nest on the ground, but in the Reserve there are also some little mammals which nest on the trees: the hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), which is quite rare; the fat dormouse (Glis glis) and the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), much more common.

What about flag species, i.e. those mammals which are much more charismatic for people? (...but micromammals are important anyway!). The Reserve hosts at least one wolf pack (Canis lupus) for the whole year; the wild cat (Felis silvestris), whose calls you can hear during reproductive season, at the end of the winter; the fox (Vulpes vulpes); the badger (Meles meles); the crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata); some mustelids like the beech marten (Martes foina) and probably the very rare European pine marten (Martes martes).

A very special place is reserved to the Apennine brown bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus), a subspecies of brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) endemic to central Apennines and heavily threatened with extinction. According to the witnesses of elderly people from Cartore, Corvaro, Borgorose and other villages, brown bear has always been present on the Duchessa mountains and on the sorrounding areas. From summer 2005 up to now many signs of presence have been repeatedly found on the Duchessa mountains; for some periods even two individuals wandered through our woods, as showed by genetic analyses which revealed two different genotypes on DNA samples taken from biological signs of presence. Up to the end of 2008 the certain presence of brown bear has been seasonal but repeated.

Other charismatic and fascinating mammals, which can easily be seen in the Reserve all year round, are the red deer (Cervus elaphus) and the roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). The red deer was extinct in the Duchessa area in the past decades; at the beginning of the Nineties it has been reintroduced by the "Corpo Forestale dello Stato" in the Monte Velino State Reserve, which is adjacent to our Reserve; the first releases have been made in Val di Teve in 1991. After that, the original nucleus began to grow up, and in almost twenty years the red deer spontaneously colonized not only the whole Duchessa-Velino area, but also the area between Sant'Anatolia and Magliano de' Marsi, the eastern slopes of the Carseolani Mountains, possibly the Val di Varri Mountains, certainly the Valle di Malito area. Also the roe deer was extinct in the Duchessa; it arrived here in the last few years, probably due to a natural expansions of the populations which have been reintroduced in the Abruzzo National Park in the Seventies.

Last but not least, we have to mention a very recent and extraordinary discovery: the bats. In 2008 a specific survey has been carried out under the financial support of the Regional Park Agency by Dr. Danilo Russo and Dr. Luca Cistrone, two of the most experienced bat ecologists, and Reserve personnel. On the whole, 14 species have been counted, which is a great number compared with the total number of species currently known for Italy, 36. We found also some species which are very rare at a European level and are threatened with extinction due to the lost of old growth forests. About the middle of 2009 we will publish a short monograph on these extraordinary night-hunters.

Bird species observed in the last 10 years are more than a hundred. We can't list all of them, we just mention some of them: the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), which hunts on the highest grasslands of Duchessa, Cava and other peaks; the lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus); the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), which successfully nested on Reserve cliffs in the last three years and which we are regularly monitoring from spring 2006; as regards the owls you can easily observe and hear the long-eared owl (Asio otus), the little owl (Athene noctua), the barn owl (Tyto alba), the Eurasian scops owl (Otus scops), the tawny owl (Strix aluco); the Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo) is much more difficult to observe. Other bird species, quite rare in central Italy and permanent in the Reserve, are the white- winged snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis), which nests on highest grasslands; the rock partridge (Alectoris graeca), also nesting on highest grasslands, which has always been present on the Duchessa mountains according to the local people; the wall creeper (Tichodroma muraria), a very nice passerine which nests on montane rock cliffs. Other bird species which nests on cliffs inside the Reserve are the alpine chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus), the red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), the northern raven (Corvus corax); the last has been reintroduced in the adjacent Velino State Reserve by the "Corpo Forestale dello Stato" at the beginning of the Nineties. Another reintroduced species if the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus); during your walks in the Reserve, if you will look at the sky you will certainly see some vultures gliding on mountain slopes or going up along a thermal current without any wingbeat. The woods hosts many bird species, for instance the collared flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis), the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor) and possibly the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos).

Finally we can't skip reptiles and amphibians. On montane heaths dominated by Juniperus communis ssp. nana there is the Orsini's viper (Vipera ursinii), which is extremely rare in Italy. As regards amphibians, in the Reserve there are very few species due to the lack of wetlands and freshwater habitat, with the exception of the Lago della Duchessa. Here there is a population of Triturus carnifex. In the few perennial springs we observed the common toad (Bufo bufo) and the common frog (Rana esculenta).

Article by: Dr Luciana Carotenuto