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20,000 km across Italy to collect tree samples

Sampling Norway spruce (Picea abies) in the Dolomites (Italy). Credit: F.Bagnoli/CNR, Italy

At the beginning of the field sampling period, we were quite unaware of what was ahead of us!

Whilst we had imagined sampling leaves was straightforward, we were concerned about assessing complex plant traits (phenotyping) and tree coring (collecting historical information from living trees). These activities were quite new for us, and required using unknown tools. However, undeterred and thanks to the help of GenTree colleagues and the tutorials they suggested, we were eventually ready to undertake all field activities in June 2016!

Our first field trip was a 5-day sampling foray in the North-Eastern part of the Alps, 600 km north of Florence. Our goal was to collect needles and cores from a Swiss pine (Pinus cembra) population and individuals of Norway spruce (Picea abies) along an altitudinal transect (75 individuals in total). We were confident of having enough time to carry out all the planned activities, but we had not considered the volatile weather at high altitudes. Heavy rain during the first days of our field work made it very clear that the sampling season would be anything but easy. However, we definitely learnt how to plan future expeditions.

In the following seven months, we spent more than 60 days in the field, travelling for 20,000 kilometres from the Alpine arc in the north, to the Southern end of the Italian peninsula. We visited seven national parks and several protected areas, interacting with local forest managers and attracting their interest in the GenTree project. As a result, the project is now showcased on the websites of most of the natural areas we visited*.

During sampling, we faced many difficulties: 40 m tall trees requiring numerous attempts to reach the higher part of the canopy, horsefly swarms attacking our car, having to scale steep slopes using mountaineering equipment, ticks crawling up our legs, wild boar always keeping a close watch on us and even a Marsican bear feeding close to t he birch (Betula pendula) plot we were sampling. Hard days, however, were always rewarded by tasting the local delicacies along the 1,100 km food-and-wine transect of Italy!

Overall, we collected leaves and needles from 725 trees of all twelve species studied in the project.  We also succeeded in phenotyping and coring seven conifer species: black pine (Pinus nigra), scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), Swiss pine (Pinus cembra), Maritime pine (Pinus pinaster), Norway spruce (Picea abies), Silver fir (Abies alba), English yew (Taxus baccata) and one broadleaf species - European black poplar (Populus nigra), acquiring new skills and strong muscles (especially using the increment borer to extract carrots of wood from the trunk).

We have successfully achieved the most important goal of the first year of the project: collect enough material to start DNA analyses and characterize population genetic diversity across Europe. Our team leads the work on DNA extraction for English yew (Taxus baccata), so we are analysing more than 300 samples of this species, collected by other project partners’ field teams across Europe. Their samples were all shipped to our laboratory in Florence (Italy).

Photographs from the field work across Italy are available here.

The Italian Team of the National Research Council, Florence: Camilla Avanzi, Francesca Bagnoli, Mariaceleste Labriola, Andrea Piotti, Ilaria Spanu, and Beppe Vendramin

* (in italian)
Parco Sirente Velino
Parco del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga
Parco Nazionale del Pollino