Symbolic species as a cultural ecosystem service in the European Alps: insights and open issues
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Purpose Symbolic plants and animals are recognised as a cultural ecosystem service (CES), which is still underrepresented in ecosystem services assessments. Thus, this study aims at identifying and mapping important symbolic species in the European Alps, which are of cultural significance to large parts of the Alpine population. Methods Symbolic species were identified by ten expert groups, and their use was assessed in a qualitative way. The spatial distribution of all species across the Alpine Space area was mapped at the municipality level. Through hotspots analysis, we identified spatial patterns in the distribution of species. Spearman correlation was used to evaluate the relationship between symbolic species and selected environmental and social variables. Results Ten species were identified (edelweiss, gentian, alpenrose, larch, pine, Alpine ibex, chamois, marmot, brown bear, and golden eagle) that are widely used for symbolic representations, i.e., depiction on flags, emblems, logos, and naming of hotels and brands. Hotspots of symbolic species were found in several locations in the European Alps and could be related to high elevation, steep slopes, open land cover, and naturalness. Conclusions This study proposes a methodology to map and assess symbolic species as a CES. As the spatial distribution of symbolic species depends on environmental characteristics and human activities, our results provide important insights for landscape planning and management. However, it remains unclear whether associated cultural values depend on the presence of the species and further research is needed to understand the relationships between the distribution of symbolic species and social benefits.