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Landscapes and flora The lost world of Swiss Alpine biodiversity

Human settlements and agriculture have profoundly changed the Alpine landscape. An illustrated volume containing some of the first colour images of Swiss landscapes traces the beginnings of research into ecosystems and makes the reader think about the loss of biodiversity in Switzerland, a problem that is more topical than ever. 

Around 1880, Carl Schröter (1855-1939), professor of botany at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, began to photograph plants in their environment. Together with Eduard Rübel (1876-1960), one of his students, this pioneer of landscape and species protection wanted to study all the factors affecting biodiversity. 

In addition to Alpine flora, he also began to document landscapes and the influence of humans, from settlements to agriculture, in almost all regions of Switzerland. This wide-ranging approach is still followed today. 

Combining botany and geography, geobotany focuses on ecosystems and their dynamics, studying how plant species assemble in communities and adapt to different conditions. Thanks to the work of geobotanists, the foundations have been laid for biodiversity protection and nature conservation in Switzerland, including the creation of the Swiss National Parkexternal link

Drastic decline 

Pictures from the collections of Carl Schröter and the Rübel Geobotanical Research Instituteexternal link, both kept in the archives of the ETH Zurich library, also illustrate life in the Alps before the mechanisation of agriculture and how the Swiss landscape has changed since the end of the 19th century. 

One problem, that of the drastic decline in biological and topological diversity, is now a burning issue. The state of biodiversity in Switzerland is “unsatisfactory”, according to the Federal Office for the Environmentexternal link, which says half of habitats and one third of species are threatened. 

A selection of photographs, including some of the first colour images of Swiss landscapes, is presented in the volume Dokumentierte Landschaftexternal link (Documented Landscape) from Swiss publisher Scheidegger & Spiess. Its aim is to spread documents of historical significance and stimulate further research into biodiversity.

(Images copyright the ETH Zurich library)

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