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Scientific research. Avalanches not only destroy ecosystems, but also create them

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Avalanches descending in the Alps can create new habitats for birds. The research of scientists from the University of Turin shows that the descent of the snow masses was associated with the formation of diverse natural areas. However, changes in the frequency of avalanches associated with the climate catastrophe may upset the delicate balance of these ecosystems.

Avalanches pose a serious threat to humans, but they are also an important part of the natural processes of habitat formation. A study by scientists from the University of Turin shows that it is thanks to them that there is a great diversity of bird species in the low parts of the Alps. Their results were published on Tuesday in the journal “Journal of Ornithology”.

Home to many species

During the 2021 breeding season, scientists conducted observations of bird species at 240 points in the Alps near Turin. Half of the research was done in areas where avalanches have occurred in the past – some decades ago and some in the last few years. The authors looked at how the falling masses of snow shaped the habitats and what species decided to introduce them.

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They found that habitats in areas where avalanches occurred were more diverse. Scientists observed more rocks, small trees, grass and small plants there than in areas that were untouched by avalanches. The differences were most visible in the lower parts of the mountains, where there are dense beech and ash forests – falling snow masses “plowed” them, turning the forest ecosystem into a completely new habitat.

“I didn’t expect to find such diversity,” Riccardo Alba, the study’s lead author, told New Scientist.

The researchers also identified a greater variety of birds in the avalanche areas, with 62 species inhabiting them, and 55 species in the areas untouched by avalanches. Animals that live in the higher parts of the mountains, as well as migratory and nesting birds in open habitats, were observed there. Among them were grouse (Lyrurus tetrix), buntings (Emberize and E. citrinella), doodles (Cannabina linaria) or Cinderella (Phoenicurus ochruros).

Capercaillie Bunting (Emberiza cia) – pic. illustrativeAdobe Stock

An endangered mosaic

Alba explains that the impact of avalanches on biodiversity is surprisingly poorly researched. For example, species composition in different habitats varied depending on how recent – and how often – avalanches occurred in the area. In addition, this fragile “mosaic” of landscapes is threatened by climate change, which may change the frequency of avalanches in the Alps.

“Each of these changes will have implications for biodiversity in the mountains,” explains Alba. ‘We need to continue researching the interactions between climate change and biodiversity to better understand how these ecosystems are changing and how to protect them for the next generations,’ he adds.

Black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) – pic. illustrativeShutterstock

New Scientist, Journal of Ornithology

Main photo source: Shutterstock | illustrative photo

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