Aims Rhododendron ponticum L. is reputed to be a post Plio-Pleistocene relict plant species with a disjunct distribution that comprises the Iberian Peninsula to the west and the Euxinian region plus some restricted Mediterranean areas to the east. We analysed the ecological range (of subsp. baeticum) in the western area (Aljibe Mountains, north of the Strait of Gibraltar) to understand the factors determining the present area limitation.
Location Sierra del Aljibe, north of the Strait of Gibraltar (Iberian Peninsula).
Methods We selected 20 riparian sites where R. ponticum is common, and compiled data on the ecological diversity of associated woody species and ferns. We established a 500-m main transect in each site, along the stream or river course, in which we placed five 20-m-long plots at regular intervals. We recorded physiographic habitat features, woody plants and fern abundance, and the number of R. ponticum individuals.
Results Rhododendron ponticum in southern Spain is restricted to riparian forests in acidic soils (pH 4.0–6.4), and is mainly found on the banks of inclined and enclosed streams. In our inventory we recorded 59 woody taxa and 12 ferns, with R. ponticum being the dominant species of the understorey (mean abundance 78.6%). The communities are characterized by a high incidence of the humid warm temperate element, both in number of species (18.8 ± 3.7 per site) and abundance; meanwhile, the presence of the modern Mediterranean element (mean number of species 3.4 ± 3.8 per site) appears to be favoured by disturbance. These ecological–historical groups of taxa also show distinct patterns of typological habit, frequency of endemism, infrageneric diversity and geographical range. Populations of R. ponticum are characterized by a very variable density of seedlings in many sites, and the virtual lack of juveniles.
Main conclusions Riparian forests of the Aljibe Mountains constitute a refuge for R. ponticum where the species persists, but populations appear to be in decline. The narrow ecological range of R. ponticum in the area strongly contrasts with its wide amplitude in the eastern natural area, mainly the Euxinian region, where R. ponticum probably finds better conditions due to the environmental heterogeneity of the region, and the lack of a hot dry season.