Agricultural landscapes and biodiversity conservation: a case study in Sicily (Italy)

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The diversity of life is made up not only of the diversity of plants and animal species, habitats and ecosystems, but also of the diversity of human cultures. These diversities interact with one another in complex ways and express the mutual adaptation between humans and the environment at local level. Sicilian traditional agro-ecosystems, due to the history of the territory and the resulting social and economic context, are configured in a heterogeneous mosaic rich in residual features of environmental value, which enhance the connectivity of the ecological network and support a high proportion of species that are rare or of conservation concern. As a case study we analyzed the characteristics of the cultural and natural landscape of the Madonie Mountains (Sicily), acknowledged as one of the most relevant biodiversity hotspots in the Mediterranean. In a G.I.S. environment, we created a digital naturalness grid map and a floristic map including extensive data collected in field. We measured landscape naturalness degree, using the Naturalness Evaluation Index, and analysed its relationship with plant species distribution. We produce evidence that the cultural processes that shape a traditional landscape can foster an amount of specific richness disproportionate to the area covered. The presence of even limited surfaces with remnant semi-natural vegetation cover, scattered within the agricultural land mosaic, positively affects biodiversity. Therefore, we suggest that environmental management plans and policies aimed at nature and biodiversity conservation should take into account not only natural and semi-natural habitats but also the key role of afro-ecosystems.