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Journey to the Ancient Forests of Italy
In August 2020, I was asked to document in pictures the Italian old-growth beech forests inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A complex task, but even more so, an extraordinary experience. Photographing a forest may seem rather easy: trees don’t run away. However, the reality is far more... read more
On the “skin” of beech trees
The tree bark is the outermost layer of trees, through which they interact with the surrounding environment. Besides, it protects them from water loss and from parasites, pathogens, and predators. It is constantly evolving and, especially in intact forests, is often home to an amazing variety of organisms and microenvironments.... read more
Beech trees at the service of the environment
Beech forest ecosystems are home to a variety of environments and habitats making them true treasure troves of biodiversity. They are outdoor scientific laboratories of outstanding value for the reconstruction of the climatic history of the territories where they have settled and of the communities inhabiting them. Besides, a healthy... read more
The hidden world of the forest
The beech forest floor is home to a surprising biodiversity. If you look closely, you will see that it is formed by various layers. The most superficial layer is the litter, which mainly contains plant material such as leaves, branches, fruits, and animals. Under it, the decay litter consists of... read more
Ecosystem engineers
When you enter a beech forest, your first impression may be of a dull and scarcely populated environment. But if you look closely, you will discover a true treasure trove of biodiversity. The silence of beech forests – especially in spring – is broken by the several songs of the birds inhabiting... read more
The “lungs” of beech trees
While walking in a beech forest, you might have the impression to be in a Gothic cathedral, since the place is shady and wet. In spring, the thin, furry, and bright green leaves of beech trees gradually become thicker and dark green, and the impenetrable foliage of the tree crowns... read more
From deadwood, the forest comes to life

From deadwood, the forest comes to life

Unlike managed and cultivated forests, old-growth beech forests are characterized by the presence of trees in different growth stages.

In these dynamic and constantly renewing ecosystems, old and senescent trees facing a slow and relentless decay caused by natural disturbances lead to the accumulation of large amounts of deadwood which comes in various forms: standing dead trees, fallen trees, windthrown trees of various sizes, broken branches, pieces of trunks, and stumps.

In natural forests, the abundance of deadwood was considered for a long time an indicator of environmental degradation. However, today we know for sure that deadwood is an essential component to maintain and enhance biodiversity for its key role in activating several ecological processes and as a crucial microhabitat for hundreds of vertebrate and invertebrate species playing important functional roles in the woodland ecosystem.

Thus, trees don’t only play a crucial role while they are alive, but also beyond their own biological life cycle. If we observe carefully, we will see that the standing or fallen dead trees are teeming with life and are full of insects and other invertebrates accelerating the decomposition process.

In beech forests, deadwood in different stages of decomposition is inhabited by several species of invertebrates, fungi, bryophytes, lichens, amphibians, birds and mammals depending on it or using it as a source of nourishment or as a shelter.

Xylophagous insects – that is, insects feeding on deadwood – are among the first “residents” inhabiting beech trees: standing dead trees or trunks, enjoying a better exposure to sunlight also in winter, become refuges and habitats for an extraordinary number of organisms. Among the others, the multicolored Rosalia Longicorn (Rosalia alpina), a beetle with long antennae and a beautiful bluish-gray body with black spots: the females lay their eggs in the crevices of the bark and the larvae feed on the decomposing wood for some years.

Fungi, bacteria, and other organisms finish the job by decomposing the vegetal debris. Among the most efficient decomposers there are the lignicolous fungi, which decompose the woody debris and release in the forest litter nutrients and organic substances, useful for the life and development of all vegetal organisms. This process contributes to the forest renewal, working as an ideal ecological niche for the germination and development of many tree species.

Therefore, besides being a fundamental element for biodiversity, deadwood also plays a key role in the nutrient cycle, representing an important carbon reservoir and, at the same time, a reserve of energy that is made available again.

Finally, the beech tree debris on the ground protects the soil from erosion, by limiting the action of water, holding humidity, and offering an efficient protection from frost.

As a consequence, the long series of events and actions following one another in beech forests until the decay and decomposition of deadwood – the result of the several and surprising relationships existing among various species – are to protect and preserve.

Flight holes of xylophagous larvae - Photo by Francesco Lemma
The cerambycid Morimus asper - Photo by Francesco Lemma
Osmoderma eremita, the Hermit Beetle - Photo by Francesco Lemma
Trunks on the ground in an old-growth beech forest - Photo by Bruno D'Amicis
A stag beetle among mosses and lichens - Photo by Francesco Lemma
The cerambycid Rosalia alpina - Photo by Bruno D'Amicis


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Project financed by funds identified under Law No. 77 of 20 February 2006 "Special measures for the protection and fruition of Italian sites of cultural, landscape-related, and natural interest, inscribed on the World Heritage List”, placed under UNESCO protection.