Monday, 29 June 2015

Time for a Nappe

The Alps span over 1000km and straddle eight countries - I passed through three of them on my Alpine journey: Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. I was based in the latter, where it borders Austria, in an area that has been fought over by Italy and Austria for hundreds of years. During the second world war, Mussolini and Hitler struck a deal where German speakers in this region of northern Italy had to either switch to speaking Italian, or move to Austria (then part of Nazi-Germany). As a result, families were split apart, including my own, and German-speaking South Tyrolean children found themselves being taught at school in a language they didn't speak. Now officially a bilingual province, South Tyrol remains ferociously independent and retains a unique mountain culture. 

Looking South to Italy from a high mountain pass.
These man-made borders mean little to the vast tectonics plates shifting below. There are folds, faults and crumples splitting up the earth here, but much of it is lost under forested slopes, or beneath human settlement. Once you start looking at rocks, even as an amateur, you begin to see how different they can be on neighbouring mountains. From the pale crumbling granite slopes of Mount Ifinger, I looked back to see the low hillside directly opposite burning red in the sunshine. I walked across the join between them, finding the red was a rich sandstone. How did these completely different rocks end up pressed together in this way?
The pale large-grained granite in the foreground contrasts with the vivid red sandstone beyond.
The chunky Ifinger granite is quite unlike the predominant schist of the rest of the valley. This is because it is on the other side of a tectonic divide between less deformed crusts and the heavily metamorphosed central alpine nappes to the north. Most of the area is Permo-Mesozoic in age, dominated by glittering schists streaked with red and yellow. The highest peaks - directly opposite the mountains I was ascending - were formed in a high-pressure squish, generating spectacular rugged pinnacles that harbour snow well into the summer.

Beautiful schists, with some kind of moth/butterfly larvae for scale.

Wonderful metamorphised rock, weathering by the track.
I was lucky enough to come across two geological phenomenon I was keen to find on this trip: garnets and fossils. The former can be massive and abundant in certain areas. I even found one to take home and add to my modest geology collection. As for fossils, metamorphism has destroyed much of what would have once existed in these rocks, but plant material can still be found. There is a museum dedicated to specimens found in a local quarry in Mölten, but the ones I came across were part of the collection of a family living on a high mountain pass near Austria.
Big red garnets dot the rocks near the Jaufenpass.
Black fossil plant material, with green lichen encrusting.
The final geological spectacle I'd been intent on seeing were the "earth pyramids". Despite having visited this area for years I only recently found out this phenomenon could be seen all over South Tyrol. Earth Pyramids are caused by selective erosion of glacial moraine. Where there are large rocks in the matrix, they form a kind of umbrella that prevents erosion by rainfall, leaving a pinnacle of earth and rock underneath them. The makes for a dramatic landscape feature.

Once you know what to look for, these earth pyramids can be seen all over the place - although some are more impressive than others. Much larger ones called the Pyramids of Renon, were too far for me to travel this time, so I sought out some more modest ones around Meran.

Photographed from a cable car as it drifted overhead, these earth pyramids are just above the city of Meran. They are especially pale and the amount of vegetation on them hints at their stability.
More earth pyramids, this time composed of a reddish matrix packed with rocks. These ones were less overgrown, so I assume they are eroding much faster.
I was careful and selective with my souvenirs, but needless to say I came back with a few chunks of Italy to call my own. A piece of Ifinger granite, a garnet, some schist and some mica. Having them is like keeping a portal in my house: I can pick them up and run my fingers over the surface, instantly transporting me back to the mountains. I do wonder what future geologists and archaeologists would make of them if they ever found the remains of my house...

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Some like it High

As if the alps weren't inherently gorgeous enough, throughout the summer they are cloaked in those low-growing, brightly coloured garments of alpine flowers. The habitat of the high mountains is a harsh tundra, where only the toughest flora and fauna survive. This makes the richness of these habitats all the more surprising.

I'm surrounded by alpenrose, Rhododendron ferrugineum.

If there's one thing I can confirm about alpine life, it's the increased ultraviolet radiation. Even with SPF 50 slathered on every inch of my skin, I got burned by the powerful sunshine at 2,500m. As well as withstanding this, alpine flora must deal with sporadic moisture content, harsh wind, unstable soils and radical temperature swings; somehow squeezing all growth and reproduction into the few fleeting months of high summer before being smothered again by snow and ice.

Soldanella pusilla or alpenglöckchen. This photo was taken next to a remnant ice patch near the summit of a mountain, testament to the high altitude speciality of this species. Love those frills.
One of my favourite flowers at high altitude is the little pink alpenglöckchen, Soldanella pusilla, known as snowbells in English. Although other members of this native European family grow lower on the slopes, this one is a specialist: found up to a dizzying 3100m above sea level. When I see it, I know I'm in heaven.

Short stemmed gentians, Gentiana acaulis.
Another classic alpine much loved by gardeners is the gentian. It is so symbolic of the mountains that it features on the Austrian one cent coin. Photographs don't capture the vivid blue of the petals, and people will travel miles just to see them. One of my relatives recommended a great place to see hillsides full of them, "just take the Jaufenpass and it's the last turn on the left before the top."
How will I know it's the last left? I asked.
"You will know because there won't be any more turns to the left after that."

Surprisingly I managed to find this "last left", and the hills were peppered with more gentians than I've ever seen before. I was also  introduced to the Alpen-grasnelke, Armeria alpina. Only just starting to flower, this little pink dude was dotting the dry slopes high above the valley.

Alpen-grasnelke, Armeria alpina
The other species I was introduced to is geologically relevant: Alpen-leinkraut or Linaria alpina. I found it on a particularly dessicated, steep mountain made of large grained and crumbling pale granite. This was no coincidence: this plant is one of the first to colonise exposed and loose rock-debris, such as glacial moraine and eroding mountainsides. Where others can't get a foothold, this mauve explorer pitches camp and flowers its heart out.

Linaria alpina likes a bit of rough... terrain. Also known in English as alpine toadflax.
Of course, there are hundreds and hundreds more alpine species to choose from, this is only a selection. Despite the harsh conditions they thrive and attract insects (see previous blog), making the high pastures and slopes unexpectedly ecologically diverse. You can find most of them in your local garden centre, but there's really nothing like having a chance to admire them in their natural habitat. Just remember and wear sunscreen.

Clockwise from top left: Primula hisuta, Pulsatilla alpina, Potentilla aurea, and Silene aculis. Some of the many intrepid alpine plants of Europe.


Still to come in my Alpine blog series: rocks. Lots of yummy, crushed, multicoloured, pitted, twisted and shiny rocks.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Alpine Stingers, Crawlers, and Flutterers

(Warning - contains many legs - but if you skip to half-way down there are pretty butterflies... awww)
I don't know much about insects, spiders and other creepy crawlies, but that doesn't stop me from finding them endlessly intriguing. This week on my holiday, I was happily skipping up a street in a tiny village on the river Passer - one of the glacier-fed tributaries of the Adige in Northern Italy. The sun was beating down and it was 35C, so I was wearing my "action sandals" (those outdoor ones with lots of velcro straps).

This was when I found the scorpion.

A scorpion is not something you want to meet when your feet are exposed, although this one was clearly dead. It was about 4-5cm in length, dark peat-brown, and had lost it's stinger. I'd never seen a scorpion outside of a zoo or pet shop, so I took pictures to show my Italian/Austrian family. They were perplexed - "a scorpion? No, we don't have scorpions." I showed them the pictures. "You found that here?"

This is probably Euscorpius germanus, a burrow dwelling scorpion that can live up to 2,500 metres altitude in the mountains. This one has lost it's stinger and was particularly big.. If you think my ID is wrong please get in touch, I am happy to be corrected by arthropod experts.
Turns out it's not just the locals who are surprised, most zoologists are unaware of the northerly European distribution of scorpions, especially those species living in mountainous areas such as the Alps or Balkans. They can dwell up to 2,500m altitude (this one was at ~600m), and the one I found - probably Euscorpius germanus - is the most northerly naturally-occurring* scorpion in Western Europe, having been found in northern Tyrol in Austria.
(There is a nice paper on European scorpions here)

Speaking of Arachnida, I am struck by the lack of spiders in the Alps compared with my homeland of Scotland. While reclining on my geranium-lined balcony, I marvelled at the heavy wooden beams of the building's construction. Back home, such a structure would be infested with spiders in every crevice, but not here. Why are there comparatively so few spiders in the Alps? The long winters? It certainly isn't a lack of flies...

Having said that, there were a lot of them on the slopes near the Jaufenpass (>2000m), where Italy and Austria share a border. These ones were like our wolf spiders and so sleek and fast I couldn't dream of getting a photograph. However, I did snap a few other arachnids on my travels. I tried to ID them, but admit to getting slightly nauseated (I'm a recovering arachnophobic). If anyone can help ID these little guys I would be much obliged (tweet @gsciencelady)

This guy tried to capture me in his web. I declined the offer, and draped him on a fencepost instead. A crab spider I believe, but what kind? (Tweet @gsciencelady if you know)
(24/6/15 - I've since identified this as a male Xysticus erraticus)

A leggy little dude who wobbled up a wall before posing for this shot. A harvestman of unknown parentage (if you can ID him, tweet me)

On a more fluttery note, the mountains were full of butterflies and moths.

Probably Phengaris alcon, the alcon blue.

Can you ID this butterfly?
(24/6/15 I now know this is not a butterfly, but a common heath moth, Ematurga atomaria)
A grizzled skipper, Pyrgus malvae? Common across Europe and fabulously fuzzy.

 The wildflower meadows were buzzing with crickets and grasshoppers. They are a pain to photograph, especially when all you have is a point-and-click like mine. However I will leave you with this stealthy wee dude and the meadow he lived in. Enjoy!

Alpine blogs still to come: geology and botanics!

*There are other species occurring as far north as the UK, but they were introduced by humans. Naturally occurring refers to post-glacial distributions.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Whistling Mammals of the Quiet Alps

Since I was a child my father told me stories about when he was a little boy looking after cow herds on high alpine meadows. He and his friends were charged with watching the herd as it grazed on the rich pasture of the steep slopes - keeping them away from cliff edges for example. He told stories of the many murmeltier he saw: little fat animals about the size of a small dog that whistled to each other across the mountains and scuttled away when he approached. The hills were full of them once, he said, but he hadn't seen any for years.

He was talking about marmots.

There are 15 species of marmot, but the one my father remembered from his youth in central Europe was Marmota marmota, the alpine marmot. For years my father and I searched for them during family holidays - I only once caught a fleeting glimpse from a cable-car of a lumbering brown dot on a hillside, quickly lost amid the loose rock.

Over the last week I was given a taste of marmot paradise: rich green meadows in the high Alps of Tyrol. On my trek through the mountains I was watched assiduously by several little marmots. They didn't whistle, just bumbled away then stood watching me from 20 metres off, before going back to nibbling the grass, lichen, roots and mosses in the glacier fed meadows below the peaks (apparently they also turn insectivorous when the mood suits).

An Alpine marmot in the Italian Alps (apologies for the poor quality, I don't have a fancy camera!)
Essentially fat ground squirrels, they live between 900-3,500metres altitude and endure the tough winters and deep snow by burrowing, hibernating, and being decidedly rotund. Sealing themselves into a burrow using their own poo, these mountaineers slow themselves to only a few breaths per minute, and sleep the winter away living off their fat reserves.

Sadly, they haven't been doing well over the last century, with a combination of hunting, climate change (they are very temperature sensitive) and human disturbance having a real impact. However, if you are a quiet, respectful trekker, you may be lucky enough to see them on the high slopes.

On another peaceful day in the mountains, I ascended the steep slope of a peak above Merano. Near the top I looked up to see a deer bounding down the mountainside towards me. It adjusted it's descent to bypass the gawking Scot on the path, but stopped nearby to take a good look. I don't know who was more surprised?

A roe or a red? Perhaps someone can identify which deer species this is for me?
I consider myself lucky when I encounter large mammals in Europe; humans take up so much space these days, it's nice to know the wild creatures are still around.


In my next Alpine blogs: insects that sting, creepy crawlies with an indecent numbers of legs, and plants full of air.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Packing my 'Nappe-stack'

I'm off on an adventure! Hiking in the mountains, eating knodel in wooden huts, sipping schnapps surrounded by geraniums while men in felt hats play accordions - where else could I be, but in the Alps?
As my surname suggests, although I am Scottish, my cultural background is a little more complicated than that. My family on my father's side come from the steep glacial valleys of the Alps, with a confusing interwoven fabric of Northern Italian and West Austrian blood that (we'd like to think) stretches right back to Oetzi the Ice Man. As a result, my heart two-times beautiful Scotland with it's other lover: South Tyrol.

The European Alps are a geological car crash - in fact they're a multi-car pile-up 30 million years in the making. Trying to understand the whole thing is a bit of a mind-bender, but the area of Tyrol I'll be wandering through for the next week, near Meran in Northern Italy, is made up of the crumpled margins of the Apulian or Adriatic plate, a chunk of Africa that broke off in the Cretaceous. The rest of it is still being crushed between the long boot of Italy and the coasts of Croatia to Albania, before curling round and cupping the bottom of Italy's heel.

What's left of the Apulian plate is being squeezed behind the Italian boot. To the North, beautiful Tyrol, part of the Alps mountain chain. Image: adapted from Wikipedia
One of the main tectonic boundaries in the Alps cuts West-East: the Periadriatic line, running like a seam through the mountains for 1000km. This is where the Northern edge of the Adriatic plate meets the Eurasian plate. Meran - and my family for generations - nestles right on this stunning collision zone.

As well as pieces of these continental plates, chunks of the ancient Tethys seaway have been heaved up here. The Tethys was a massive shallow sea cupped in the hands of the supercontinent of Pangea, but as the continents broke up and rearranged themselves, it was sandwiched, sub-ducted and uplifted along it's length, leaving fossils high and dry from the Alps to the Himalayas (although these fossils have often been destroyed in later metamorphic processes). 
The Alpine geology in the area I'm exploring. The Legend is at the end of this blog, or go here for the complete interactive map of the Alps.
Most of the rocks in the Alps are called 'nappes' (and when they are on top of one another, as they often are in the Alps, it's a nappe-stack!). Much of the rock I'll be thudding my boots on are the Austroalpine nappes: Adriatic plate rocks thrust up and over the Eurasian rocks. But because I'm roaming around the Periadriatic seam, I'll also get a look at some rocks from an even older collision zone. That's because the south side of the seam is made of rocks from the Variscan orogeny, when Euramerica and Gondwana got intimate during the formation of the supercontinent Pangaea, around 300 million years ago. Meanwhile even further south, the Dolomites are the result of over 200 million years of deposition at the bottom of the sea being lifted up into the air and eroded into jagged fingers by rain and ice.

Suffice to say, there's a lot going on geologically. My bag will be full of rocks by the end. On top of that, literally, is the wonderful alpine ecosystem. Although much altered by man, they valleys and mountainsides of the region are a naturalist's wonderland.
So off I go with my camera, map and ID guides, let's see what I can find.

Taken 2 years ago in the valley where my relatives live. I can't wait to return.

Legend for the geological map of the region.