Etna offers a rare, easily accessible combination of landscapes, geodiversity and volcanic features. Volcanic elements, lava tunnels, lava fields and lava caves, with particular mineralisation and other types of morphology, all reveal Etna’s continued eruptions throughout human history.
The latitude and altitude of the volcano, its island position and imposing conical shape that stands out against the sky, cannot be compared to any other mountain in the Mediterranean, due to climate and weather conditions, structure and unique, ever-changing appearance, which is linked both to volcanic activity and to exogenous degradation.
Breath-taking lavascapes alternate with wild and rugged rocky layers and slopes; stunning cones of lava, deep valleys with solid lava walls. All of these features reflect the incessant activity of the volcano that has been part of Etna’s geological landscape since ancient times.
The vegetation on Etna is influenced by different factors, including the volcanic soil, climate and human action.
The result is a landscape all its own. Plant communities that live close to one another may actually be completely different: alongside woods and meadows, you will see cultivated fields and black expanses of recent lava flows. On these latter areas, the vegetation is forced to start from zero, starting up the slow, steady colonisation process again, even if faced with the possibility of new eruptions forcing it to start again once more, in a never-ending cycle.
The native plants that grow higher up on the slopes are endemic to Etna, since they have specifically adapted to life in this harsh environment. We can see different bands of vegetation according to altitude. From 1000 to 1450 m above sea level, it the supra-Mediterranean belt, featuring deciduous oaks and evergreens, pines, and chestnuts.
The larch pine forests have, over the centuries, been aided by people, while the chestnuts were actually introduced by human intervention. From 1450 to 2000 m above sea level, we find ourselves in the Mountain-Mediterranean belt, known as the Beech belt.
Europe’s southernmost beech tree population is in fact located on Etna and at the same time, it reaches the highest altitudes, growing at up to 2300 m. Although the beech woods are extremely fragmented now, they are the remains of much larger forests present during the last glaciation, when the climate was wetter and cooler.
In the same area, on the eastern slope, we find the birch tree, the Betula aetnensis, considered by experts to be an endemic species. From 2250 m above sea level, up to the limits of pioneer vegetation, is the high-Mediterranean belt, where the plant life is discontinuous and dominated by cushions of Sicilian milkvetch, another endemic species. The highest area is formed by poor areas of pioneer plants.
The rock ridges are home to Crespino, Berberis aetnensis and Juniper, Juniperus hemisphaerica and, lower down, Mount Etna broom Genista aetnensis and Adenocarpus bivonii. 2450 m above sea level, the vegetation becomes more and more sporadic, formed by endemic pioneer species such as Rumex aetnensis, Anthemis aetnensis and Senecio aetnensis.
At altitudes of 2900-2950 m, the very few plants specialised in living in these difficult conditions are constantly subjected to the continuous production of gas and rocky materials of different sizes. No plant life manages to live above this height: this is the area with terminal cones, from 3000-3050 metres to the summit. This last belt is known as “volcanic desert”, where the volcano reigns undisturbed
Etna is unique in all of Europe and in the Mediterranean: forests, wet areas, grasslands, and rocky ridges form an exclusive environmental mosaic. The wildlife on Etna is therefore rich and diversified with some species showing specific adaptation to their surroundings.
Currently, the local fauna includes some 800 species of vertebrates and invertebrates. Many mammals under threat of extinction have found refuge on the volcano’s slopes, as is the case of the wild cat, the porcupine, marten, and the miniscule Sicilian shrew.
In particular, the wildcat population on Etna has grown, taking this rare carnivore, which almost became extinct in the last century, to increasing numbers. Many types of native and migratory birds can be found at the different altitudes, including the golden eagle, the Sicilian rock partridge, peregrine falcon, the well camouflaged nightjar, and the lark, which is seeing a decline in many other areas of Europe.
Other interesting species include the little Sicilian long-tailed tit, which some consider an endemic Sicilian species, and the crossbill, which lives in the larch forests on Etna. There are also nine species of reptile on Etna, and these require rigorous protection.
They include the Hermann’s tortoise, and the pond turtle. The highest number of endemic species are from the insect kingdom. Some types of beetle have evolved specifically to adapt to the area, such as the Lionychus fleischeri focalirei (Carabidae)which lives at high altitudes in the gullies in which stormwater flows; the Medon perniger fraudulentum (Staphylinidae) which populates the woods; the Buprestis aetnensis (Buprestidae) which is typical of the pine forests, and the Attalus aetnensis (Melyridae), often found in mountain meadows.
The butterfly population includes the eastern orange tip (Anthocaris damonae), found only on Etna, and the little Lysandra icarius or common blue, only seen in Sicily near the Citelli Refuge.