A foray into Italian alpine springs

As part of a journey visiting researchers and attending conferences, I was lucky enough to be offered an opportunity to tag along with researchers from the museum of science Trento on their annual sampling of Italian alpine springs.

It seems at first that you would have to try hard to think of two systems that were more dissimilar -chilly, mossy and gushing springs in the European mountains and small, flat, slow-flowing ponds in the middle of the Australian desert.  However, I found many similarities and applicable lessons to be shared between the springs I saw with Nicola and Daniel and my springs from home.  To reflect on my experiences I’ve come up with these little points (and some nice photos).


Contrasting springs on different sides of the globe – on the left Daniel Spitale standing by an alpine springs in northern Italy, on the right myself and Sasha Jooste standing by a desert spring in central Australia.


Springs create stability

Despite the fact that the pervading climate in each situation is incredibly different, in both cases springs create a distinct environment to that which exists outside of springs. Thanks to their underground water sources springs are inherently a place of environmental stability standing in contrast to the strong environmental fluctuations in other local water sources and in the ambient environment.

For example [1,2].  The temperature of the water is moderated.  In the alpine case at around 6-8C in an environment that can fluctuate from below 0C to 25C, in the arid Australian case at around 25C in an environment that fluctuates between 5C and 50C.  The availability of water is permanent (or close to it) – in the alpine case springs avoid the seasonal loss of free water with winter freeze and over-abundance of water with spring snowmelt, in the arid Australian case springs persist despite the boom-bust cycle of flooding and drying of other waterways.  The water chemistry is stable and unique – in the alpine case depending on the substrate of the source waters, in the arid Australian case and particularly GAB springs the water is always clear and alkaline.

In both cases the spring moderates the inherent variance of the prevailing environment and creates a special set of conditions [2,3].


Stability fosters diversity

The particular environmental situation created by springs fosters biodiversity that can surpass other aquatic systems.  In particular, the species that live in springs are often restricted to only springs and often particular types of springs.  In the European context, I have been learning about the amazing diversity of diatoms [3], caddisflies [4] and mites [5].  At home we have been focussing on the fishes, snails, amphipods, isopods and plants [see previous post].

Whilst in Australia we are currently focussing on these larger organisms, I can’t wait to see what kinds of patterns emerge when we can start to look closer at the organisms that are studied in detail in Europe that we currently know very little about.


Just two examples of the amazing diversity of different kinds of organisms that live in springs.  On the left, springs diatoms from the southern alps in Europe from Cantonati 1998 (see here).  On the right, the Jardinella radiation of spring snails from just the Queensland portion of GAB springs in Australia from Ponder & Clarke 1990 (see here).


Microhabitats matter

A large part of my thesis has focussed on the environmental heterogeneity that exists across and within springs.  I have found that within a single spring, even if it is no bigger than a coffee table, an array of microhabitats can exist [see reference in 2].  So it came as a nice reminder to learn that this situation also prevails in the springs I helped to sample in Europe. Different microhabitats are created at larger scales from the vent to the spring outflow and in the surrounding areas [6].  They are also created within springs by different substrates – for example when sampling European springs for diatoms we took seperate samples for the stones, the sediment and the mosses.  Combined with their environmental stability and water permanence, this microhabitat complexity is thought the be another reason why springs are so diverse [6].


Threats to springs biodiversity 

Despite the fact that springs represent distinct ecosystems that house a huge diversity of flora and fauna, the story in Europe matched that in Australia regarding threats.  By changing the flow of a spring we change the conditions that springs-specific organisms rely on.  In Europe, the capture and diversion of spring water so that properties and agriculture can use it is a common occurrence.  In Australia, the over-extraction of water from the source aquifer that feeds springs and the physical modification of springs in an attempt to capture water in a particular fashion both have caused losses of biodiversity.

Despite the outwardly dissimilar climatic zones, geological contexts and flora and fauna that prevail in these springs, in both situations the demand for water by humans comes at a cost for the biodiversity in springs.  In order to conserve the unique systems that springs are we need to call attention to this plight at both local and global scales.


Examples of the extraction of water from springs which leads to biodiversity loss from opposite sides of the world.  On the top is an example we visited in Italy this year of a spring that has been diverted into a pipe, with the only flow left for the spring-dependant organisms some high-velocity drains that flow out onto rocks (photos by me).  On the bottom two examples from Australia of physical structures intended to create more flow that eventuated in the springs drying up and the loss of any diversity that was once there (photos by Rod Fensham and Jen Silcock).


Ecologists are an interesting lot

To end on a more positive note, this trip also taught me that being an ecologist is an amazing career where you get to visit beautiful places, constantly learn and are always kept on your toes. I was lucky enough to be entrusted in the field with some very high tech equipment used by this research group.  A ‘Bentho-torch’ that measures in situ the amount and types of algae on rocks.  For me this was fabulous as I still have to collect, kill, melt down and measure in the lab my samples to collect the same data.  And the humble tooth-brush, used for scrubbing diatom films from the rocks in springs.  Opposite ends of the technological scale, both incredibly useful and both completely different to the approach I take.

I also had the pleasure of visiting some amazing sites and seeing some amazing locations. Completely different to home but no less spectacular.  I can’t complain about the ready availability of coffee and rest stops at the amazing mountain Refugio that were often near the locations we stopped.  It was certainly a luxury compared to carrying the coffee pot and making your own on the fire that I am accustomed too.  I also had the pleasure of having the day off in the Val di Fumo which was possibly one of the most magical places I have ever visited.


I would like to thank Marco Cantonati for arranging this opportunity and facilitating my whole stay in Italy. And to Daniel Spitale and Nicola Angeli for taking me everywhere, being so kind to me throughout my whole visit and teaching me so much.


Daniel and Nicola setting up our little field station at one of the sampled springs.



1 .  For Europe see: M Cantonati, R Gerecke, E Bertuzzi (2006) ‘Springs of the Alps–sensitive ecosystems to environmental change: from biodiversity assessments to long-term studies’, Hydrobiologia 562 (1), 59-96, available here AND S von Fumetti, P Nagel (2012) ‘Discharge variability and its effect on faunistic assemblages in springs’, Bioone 31 (2), 647-656, available here

2.  For Australia see: RJ Fensham, JL Silcock, A Kerezsy, W Ponder (2011) ‘Four desert waters: Setting arid zone wetland conservation priorities through understanding patterns of endemism’, Biological Conservation, 144 (10), 24592467, available here AND an upcoming publication from my thesis R Rossini, RJ Fensham, GH Walter (in review) ‘Dealing with impermanent permanence; microhabitat affinities of imperilled endemic desert spring snails relate to environmental stability’, Aquatic ecology, TBC

3.  The work of Marco Cantonati e.g. here, but also some interesting talks at SIL2016 from Jasmina Kamberović and Abdullah Saber

4.  Mostly from presentations at SIL by Simon Vitecek, see his work here and his broader research group here

5.  Mostly from the work of Reinhard Gerecke which can be found here

6. See the conceptualisation of spring microhabitats in this review: M Cantonati, LFüreder, R Gerecke, I Jüttner, EJ Cox (2012) ‘Crenic habitats, hotspots for freshwater biodiversity conservation: toward an understanding of their ecology’, Freshwater Science, 31 (2), 463-480 available here



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