Professor of Ecology

Department of Biological Applications and Technology
University of Ioannina
Ioannina 45110, Greece


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Department of Biological Application & Technology

University of Ioannina

Phenomenal Projects

Lots of good stuff going on here

University of Ioannina Field Station


In 2012 the University of Ioannina signed an agreement with the Labriadeio Foundation, signing the Labriadeios School building over to the UOI for 25 years in order to operate as a field station.
This became operative in November 2014 and it has become the UOI’s “PALASE” field station. Principal responsibility for the station lies with UOI’s Department of Biological Applications and Technology. It has been used for the university Field Ecology course since 2012. It has also used as a base for research and for the summer schools in the scientific fields of Conservation, History, Ethnography and Sociology.

PALASE from front gate (image)

Situated in Northern Pindos National Park (39.876311°N,  20.706089°E). PALASE is surrounded by meadows, oak forests, wetlands and mountainous grasslands that host an amazing fauna of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians as well as countless invertebrate species. It is the first field station in the Organization of Biological Field Stations (OBFS) network to be situated in Mediterranean Europe. PALASE was established in 2012, in the former Labriadeios Textile & Weaving School. PALASE is a two floor 1500 sq.m. building with:

  • 2 Classrooms/Laboratories
  • 1 Large lecture theatre (100 people)
  • 1 Large lecture theatre (100 people)
  • 5 dormitories (8 people each)
  • 5 Single/double rooms

At an elevation of 960m the weather is cooler than other areas in Greece and combines Mediterranean and Boreal climates. Ecological activity typically begins in mid April and lasts well in to July. In the vicinity, we find:

  • The Vikos Canyon
  • The Pindos National Forest
  • 11 NATURA 2000 areas
  • The UNESCO Vikos-Aoos Geopark
  • Prehistoric sites, Byzantine churches and monasteries, and villages with traditional stonework (16th – 19th c)

Other attractive features are the ease of access (we are just 30 minutes from Ioannina airport) and the great local hospitality and traditional cuisine. Overall, PALASE is located in an area of high biodiversity, lively tradition and  stunning natural beauty.

Towers of Mt Astrakas at Papigo The towers of Astrakas (part of Mt Tymphi) near Papigo about 10km from PALASE field station.


The THALIS-SAGE programme

Report of the Project

The THALIS-SAGE (SAcred Groves of Epirus) project was part of our work on Sacred Natural Sites (SNS). In this we took a specific set of SNS and explored not only how they worked but also the ecological consequences. The original idea for this project was conceived by Kalliopi Stara, who originally studied the groves from an historical and social science perspective. Seeing their potentially wider significance, she designed the THALIS-SAGE proposal and invited me to act as Principal Investigator for the project.

The present heavily wooded appearance of the mountain landscape of Epirus in NW Greece belies its history as an intensively managed landscape. Until the 20th century the majority of the land was cultivated or grazed and tree cover was reduced to some remnant patches and managed silvopastures. Given the need for tree cover, communities in the area found a way to maintain forested area. Within the special status during the years of the Ottoman period (1479-1912), these communities accomplished this through the agency of religious rules and prohibitions imposed by the Orthodox Church. Each village established a small area of protected forest near to the church. The resulting network of sacred groves played an important role in the cultural and natural development of this landscape and has endured until the present day.

The THALIS programme brought the chance to study the Sacred Groves of Epirus (SAGE). Our project has dealt with the history and ecology of these sacred groves. This constitutes the first systematic academic investigation of them as sacred natural sites (SNS). Until now the sacred groves of Epirus were virtually unknown to the academic world.

THALIS project structure (image)

The work can be divided into three parts.

Historical and dendrochronological studies of the groves. Research Team-1 identified and mapped 22 different groves and delimited their borders using GIS to describe their territorial and qualitative aspects. The 22 groves range in size from less than 5 to 120 hectares (1.2km2). In the surrounding forests (mostly re-growth dating from after the Second World War) “control” areas were defined and mapped for eight of these groves. Extensive databases have been created that include important information on the location, size, structure and composition of these groves. For a subset of groves we have much more detailed information about the current tree population structure. From these structural and dendrochronological studies we estimated that the groves are 250-350 years old, established somewhere between 1660 and 1760. Team-1 also prepared a package of educational material focused on the ecological and cultural values of veteran trees, which addresses their features, their value, anthropogenic or other threats and offer encouragement to action on how protecting them.

Biodiversity studies. Research Team-2 and Team-3 studied the biodiversity of eight of the sacred groves in comparison with corresponding control areas defined by Team-1 in the adjacent forests. They classified the forest vegetation according to the methodology of EU/ 92/43 and used different diversity indicators. These teams carried out surveys of woody plants, passerine birds, bats, lichens, fungi and insects (surveys of a single group, soil nematodes, were also carried out by Team-1). The analysis of this resulting extensive biodiversity database is still only beginning. So far, our studies confirmed that the biodiversity character of the groves is more or less consistent with that of the surrounding forested areas for most groves and the majority of taxonomic groups. This is in keeping with new research also carried out at the University of Ioannina’s Lab of Ecology, which finds that fragments of size 5-120 ha are unlikely to harbour significant residual biodiversity after more than 200 years of isolation.

Sociological and ethnographic studies. Team 4 studied the groves’ history through ethnographic research and the examination of archived historical documents. The prohibitions protecting the groves varied in strength and type resulting in a wide variability of protection levels. Two broad categories stand out: dedication and excommunication. Dedicated groves enjoyed the protection of the saint with mischief-makers risking the wrath of the patron. Excommunicated groves worked because if people entered the area they would themselves suffer association with an excommunicated entity. Statistical analyses carried out by Team-1 for location, shape, size, structure, composition and natural succession of groves found the dominant predictor of presence to be the location close to the church and the village itself. However, knowing from ethnographic lines of enquiry we see that other factors indeed played an important role.

The THALIS-SAGE programme has had many successes and more are expected. Among these, for example, THALIS-SAGE has:

  • drawn attention both to the conservation value of sacred natural sites in Epirus and their current need for conservation today. Of special note is that, through the efforts of those involved in the programme, as of July 2015 the sacred forests of Zagori and Konitsa are included in the national index of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. The proposal has been dedicated to the memory of our THALIS -SAGE colleague professor Oliver Rackham.
  • assembled a huge biodiversity dataset for 8 different groves and their associated control areas with 5000 records of nearly 821 different species over 8 different taxonomic groups with biodiversity and abundance measurements. Analysis of this dataset is ongoing.
  • provided a boost to the ethnographic and historical studies in Epirus. It was the basis for the recent book Peklari- the small-scale social economy by V. Nitsiakos, now already into its 2nd edition and currently being made ready for publication in English.
  • published the book The ancient trees, their values and their importance for biodiversity conservation and the associated environmental education course by K. Stara and D. Vokou (editors) with contributions from P. Mani (educational applications), B. Chatzirvasani (illustrations) A. Zouki (graphic design) and texts and photos from various partners in THALIS-SAGE.

In addition THALIS-SAGE has been diffusing results into the scientific community and local society. A stream of papers published in Greek and international conferences, and various scientific papers for journals published continues to this day. The groves also became an important component in the teaching programme of the Greek Summer School in Conservation Biology and in Konitsa’ Border Crossings Network Summer School in 2014 and 2015. The THALIS-SAGE programme has highlighted both the protective role of the groves when they were operational and now the need for protection of the groves. Unfortunately, our closing workshop had to be cancelled. This exciting and important part of THALIS-SAGE, planned for September 2015, would have brought together all the teams to help in the overall synthesis of the project. But it became impossible after the sudden cancellation of the bulk of our remaining funds in September 2014 amid the Greek economic crisis. Thus, there are still many loose ends, things we never had a chance to discuss.

Kalliopi Stara (centre) explaining the ecology of Epirus to students

With an eye to future developments, there are many new questions the THALIS-SAGE programme has opened:

  • What is the biodiversity capacity of sacred natural sites? Are they big enough? Many studies have argued that SNS of less than 10ha are too small and do not contribute much in conservation terms. However, this may depend on which kinds of organisms.
  • Sacred forests are a common feature of the cultural landscapes of Epirus. Is this pattern repeated all over continental Greece? What happens to the rest Balkans?
  • What was the role of religion in defining the SAGE? What was the view of nature fostered: simply personal threats or a sense of stewardship?

These constitute only three of the many issues raised by THALIS-SAGE. We are likely to see all of these again knowing that the THALIS-SAGE programme has made an important contribution to the study of SNSs in general and to the Sacred Groves of Epirus in particular.

It has been a great pleasure and privilege to act as Principal Investigator of THALIS-SAGE and it is with sadness that I signal the closing of the programme. I wish to thank all who have worked for the programme.

THALIS participants (image)



Epirus Orchids

Orchids are not only among the most beautiful and striking of flowers but constitute one of evolution’s most interesting and diverse families of plants. The region of Epirus has a great diversity of orchids. Exploring this diversity is one of my great passions. We also do some great science along the way. Our aim is to improve our understanding of the population dynamics in order to improve our approach to conservation.


University of Ioannina.
The rich variety of orchids on the UOI campus owes its existence not only to the rich diversity of the Epirus flora, but also to the orchid-friendly management regime practiced by the University of Ioannina Technical Service: the lawns are cut ever year and the levels of usage of pesticide and fertilizer are low. In 2013 we were proud to publish a poster in English featuring the 10 orchids we had recorded on the University of Ioannina (UOI) Campus since 2008. Then for 2016 (with the help of Prof. T. Trangas, Head of Department at BET and Prof. M. Tzaflidou, Dean of Health Sciences) we published a calendar featured an additional 4 species. Another species appeared in 2016. Not bad for an area of one square kilometer! Certainly, there is no sign of a plateau and the longer you look, the more you find. Partly, this is because it takes time to check all the possible places. But also ecological communities are in a perpetual state of “turnover”. Weather, population dynamics and climate change lead to a shifting balance between species. Thus, while some orchids are found every year, others come and go.


Orchids of Zagori
There is a further diversity of orchids in Zagori, that we explore through are base in the PALASE field station of the University of Ioannina. Notice the high turnover of species in the graph above! How do we distinguish extinction from mere turnover? These issues will apply to all regions and to all scales of observation, only in a different way. Understanding this dynamic will be a key to better conservation. Our aim is to understand better the population dynamics of orchids so as to derive improved approaches to orchid conservation.