Rapid climatic changes and resilient vegetation during the Lateglacial and Holocene in a continental region of south-western Europe

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Palynological, sedimentological and geochemical analyses performed on the Villarquemado paleolake sequence (987 m a.s.l, 40°30′N; 1°18′W) reveal the vegetation dynamics and climate variability in continental Iberia over the last 13,500 cal yr BP. The Lateglacial and early Holocene periods are characterized by arid conditions with a stable landscape dominated by pinewoods and steppe until ca. 7780 cal yr BP, despite sedimentological evidence for large paleohydrological fluctuations in the paleolake. The most humid phase occurred between ca. 7780 and 5000 cal yr BP and was characterized by the maximum spread of mesophytes (e.g., Betula, Corylus, Quercus faginea type), the expansion of a mixed Mediterranean oak woodland with evergreen Quercus as dominant forest communities and more frequent higher lake level periods. The return of a dense pinewood synchronous with the depletion of mesophytes characterizes the mid-late Holocene transition (ca. 5000 cal yr BP) most likely as a consequence of an increasing aridity that coincides with the reappearance of a shallow, carbonate wetland environment. The paleohydrological and vegetation evolution shows similarities with other continental Mediterranean areas of Iberia and demonstrates a marked resilience of terrestrial vegetation and gradual responses to millennial-scale climate fluctuations. Human impact is negligible until the Ibero-Roman period (ca. 2500 cal yr BP) when a major deforestation occurred in the nearby pine forest. The last 1500 years are characterized by increasing landscape management, mainly associated with grazing practices shaping the current landscape.