The Late Holocene extinction of Pinus sylvestris in the western Cantabrian Range (Spain)


*Juan M. Rubiales, Departamento de Silvopascicultura, Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros de Montes, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, 28040 Madrid, Spain. E-mail:


Aim  To reconstruct the historical biogeography of Pinus sylvestris in the Cantabrian Range (Iberian Peninsula) during the Holocene, and to consider the interactions between vegetation dynamics, climate change and the role of man in the present-day distribution of the species.

Location  The study site is a mire (1300 m a.s.l.) at Vega de Viejos, on a south-facing slope of the western Cantabrian Range, Spain. The region’s present-day landscape is almost treeless, with the exception of some patches of Quercus pyrenaica and a few copses of Salix and Betula along stream banks.

Methods  Tree macrofossils from Vega de Viejos were studied by transmitted light and dark-field reflection microscopy; strobili were subjected to comparative morphological analyses. Two Pinus macrofossils were dated by conventional 14C methods.

Results  The taxonomic accuracy achieved in the identification of the macrofossils provided new information regarding the Holocene history of Pinus sylvestris in this territory. Ninety-five cones of this species were identified; in fact, more than 80% of the 36 identified wood remains were of Pinus gr. sylvestris. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the forest to which the fossils belonged was present until at least 2170 ± 50 yr bp– its disappearance was therefore relatively recent.

Main conclusions Pinus sylvestris suffered long-term isolation, and after the Würm glacial period tended to migrate towards the east. In western Iberia, a temperate climate and autogenic succession favoured broadleaved taxa at the expense of Pinus. Late Holocene human disturbances may have further accelerated the decline of P. sylvestris; in the Cantabrian Range, only a few stands on southern slopes have persisted until the present day. The history of the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), a bird characteristic of pure or mixed Palaeartic coniferous forests, was almost certainly affected by the demise of these forests in this area. Cantabrian capercaillies are the only members of this species that live in purely deciduous forests, perhaps a recent adaptation to the regional extinction of pines. Today’s P. sylvestris and capercaillie populations are now highly fragmented and their future, given the predictions of global climate change, is uncertain.