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Campania - The Natural Environment

Campania can structurally be divided into two clearly defined zones stretching northwest-southeast parallel to the coast. Inland rise the Campania and Lucanian Apennines, separated by the Sella di Conza (700 m.) and the upper Sele valley. Along the coast lie the Campano Preapennines, lower in height and of volcanic origin (the extinct Roccamonfina volcano, Campi Flegrei and Vesuvius) or limestone (Lattari mountains). To these two parallel ranges a third can be added; the discontinuous and much less extensive band of offshore islands of volcanic origin (Ischia, Procida, Vivara and Nisida) or limestone (Capri).

The Campania Apennines consist of an irregular range of low mountain groups, broken at intervals by intermontane hollows. The principal groups are Matese (Mount Miletto, 2,050 m.), Taburno-Camposauro (1,388 m.), the Picentini Mountains (Cervialto, 1,809 m.), the Alburni Mountains (1,742 m.) and Mount Cervati (1,899 m.).

The coastline, which closely follows the line of the mountains, and the position of the plains and the coastal hills, are articulated in three large peninsulas (Campi Flegrei, Lattari Mountains, Cilento) which, together with the offshore islands, delimit the gulfs of Naples and Salerno.

The principal rivers are the Garigliano, on the Latium boundary, the Volturno and the Sele, all flowing into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Fed by karst springs, they normally have a smooth constant flow, while all the other watercourses are torrential, as are the rivers such as the Fortore, Carapelle and Ofanto, that rise on Campanian territory and flow into the Adriatic.

The climate is extraordinarily mild along the flat coastal belt and on the low slopes, with mild moderately wet winters and relatively cool dry summers. As one leaves the coast, variations in temperature increase progressively to the typical values of low latitude continental climates.

Human intervention has greatly altered the spontaneous vegetation in Campania, reducing the Mediterranean scrub and woodland to make way for arable land. Twenty percent of the territory is woodland, and characteristic trees, in the mountainous areas, are chestnut and beech.

An unmistakeable part of Campania is Vesuvius (1,279 m.), famous in history, archeology and art, and interesting from a naturalist's point of view. The vegetation is that typical of hot sunny areas, but fertile damp valleys provide a favourable habitat for flourishing stands of pine, oak, chestnut and even birch. The stone pine, with its umbrella-shaped crown of foliage, though introduced in Roman times, is the best-known feature of the Vesuvian landscape at low and medium altitudes.

Other trees have been planted more recently, but for most of the year, the dominant yellow and green colours are those of the broom.

Another typical environment, rugged and mountainous, is that of the Alburni mountains, lying between the Tanagro and Calore rivers, which take their name from the whiteish rock, a vast solid mass of cretaceous limestone that turns to splendid shades of pink in the rays of the setting sun. The calcareous nature of the rock gives rise to a large quantity of karst phenomena, including dolinas, swallow holes, cavities and caves; one of the most famous being the Pertosa cave, site of a fine underground lake and full of concretions, though the Castelcivita caves also are noteworthy. The vegetation on the Alburni includes uncommon varieties and numbers of species: at the foot of these mountains, Mediterranean scrub forest prevails, mainly holly oak, evergreen shrubs (genus Phillyrea) and wild olives, followed by white oak and carpinus orientalis higher up, chestnut woods and Neapolitan alder still further up the slopes, then spreading beechwoods. Of the species of fauna that, until last century, lived on this massif, the Apennine wolf, otter and wildcat still survive, while the wild boar, fox, marten, dormouse, hare and hedgehog are widespread.

The most prominent reminder of volcanic activity in the Campi Flegrei, renowned and intact since ancient times, is the Astroni crater, the remains of an old extinct volcano near Agnano, just outside Naples. This is probably the sole instance in Europe of a volcanic crater which is the site of a thick forest, the only surviving trace of the great forests that once covered the Campi Flegrei, instead of a lake or various kinds of human settlement. This forest is the habitat of magnificent specimens of white oak, penducolate oak, chestnut and hornbeam, together with other, sometimes exotic trees, such as the American red oak.

The largest population of otters in the whole peninsula survives in the Serre e Persona wildlife refuge at the foot of the Alburni mountains, created in the least disturbed river environment in the whole of the south, that of the Sele and Tanagro rivers, with fragments of riparian ecosystems and immensely interesting marshland.

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