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29 septiembre 2023

From the steppe to the peaks: Aragon, a world of landscapes

The region has very different ecosystems, some of them practically unique in the peninsula and in Europe, which are very close to each other. This natural treasure provides a high biodiversity in animal and plant species such as the bearded vulture, extremophile plants, the bear or the rich set of steppe birds.

“Except for the marine ecosystems, for obvious reasons, there is practically everything here”. This sentence quite aptly condenses the richness of Aragon’s cultural heritage, a territory that has 18 protected natural areas in its various catalogs, including a national park, Ordesa and Monte Perdido. The sentence that opens this text, by the way, is pronounced by the environmental educator and member of the Association of Environmental Educators of Aragon Paco Iturbe, who explains a little more: “We have steppe landscapes, that to see something similar you have to go to North Africa, but in very few kilometers there are high mountain ecosystems, that you would have to go to the center of Europe or almost to Nordic countries to find a similar environment”. In other words, very different and distant places that, nevertheless, in Aragon almost go hand in hand.

Thus, you can go from the steppe to the mountains, passing through different landscapes gradually, but all concentrated in a small space. Thus, if someone wanted to make a trip to get to know them, it would be easy to start from the banks of the Ebro, crossing the Monegros and its salt marshes, to end in the Pyrenees, with high mountain areas such as glaciers and ibones. In this route “of barely 100 kilometers“, the traveler will also be able to get to know mountain ranges such as those of Guara, with a different environment. “The contrast that can be seen in just a few kilometers is striking,” insists Iturbe.

About this natural wealth, the environmental educator highlights the importance of the Aragonese gypsum steppes, which can also be found in the south of the peninsula, “but in all of Europe there is nothing absolutely nothing like it“. In fact, to see a similar environment you have to go to North Africa or areas of Asia Minor, he says.

Extreme environments

Among the steppe environments, he highlights the salt marshes of the Monegros, “landlocked lagoons that are highly saline, their waters are between 10 and 15 times saltier than those of the sea,” he says. These spaces also offer a spectacle “that seems to be from another planet”, with their layers of salts exposed when they dry up.

They have a very high concentration of sulfur and bacteria and microorganisms that still live in the lower layers are produced in association with this element, which is what was on Earth millions of years ago,” he says about these spaces. For this reason, he says that visits by experts from all over the world to study these lagoons are common. “It is an example of the extreme and the peculiarity of the group of organisms that live there,” he adds.

But there are not only microorganisms, but also other types of species that offer a beautiful scenery such as artemia salina, a reddish insect typical of hypersaline environments and that in salty waters such as those of the Bujaraloz area can be seen with the naked eye in large concentrations. “When there is little water, you see all the salt literally red,” Iturbe describes.

Although less exclusive in Europe, Aragon’s high mountain environments are also very rich in biodiversity. Animals such as the bearded vulture, the bear or the capercaillie stand out as great exponents of the territory’s fauna. But they are not the only species of real interest, because, returning to the steppe, you can find invertebrates unique to the area and of high scientific value, although, yes, much more difficult to see.

As for the flora of this environment, the environmental educator explains that specimens from the African continent and extremophilic plants that inhabit the hypersaline environments thrive. Species that contrast sharply with others found at a very short distance, from the Pyrenean environments, such as the mountain pine. “The variety is tremendous, brutal,” he sums up.

Living fossils

This great variety includes living fossils such as the ‘borderea chouardii’, a species typical of the tropical climate that existed millions of years ago in the area and that survives in the Pyrenean ravines, as does the ‘Ramonda myconi’, another plant specimen that stands out for the beautiful purple tones of its flowers.

Beyond these two types of landscape, the expert recalls that the Community also has others of high interest such as the environments of Teruel’s rodeno, in the south, a “peculiar” space that also differs considerably from the rest of what can be found in the territory.

And, returning to the fauna, he mentions the ornithological richness of the Community. For Iturbe, the Ebro is “a great biological corridor“, which includes species such as herons or the night heron and areas such as galachos and copses. And, again in the steppe environment, he stresses the importance of places like El Planerón, in Belchite, “one of the best points” for bird watching in the steppe.

A unique place to enjoy the birds

He agrees on this point with the territorial delegate of the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO-Birdlife) in Aragon, Luis Tirado. On this matter, he says that El Planerón, together with the Monegrino environment, the Pyrenees and, in season, Gallocanta, make up a tandem of ornithological tourism “internationally known”.

His description of the ecosystems of the Community, in fact, is practically identical to Iturbe’s: “It is as if we had a gradual descent of ecosystems, a gradual descent between the alpine areas of the Pyrenees, where for example the high mountain lakes stand out, old glaciers that have thawed over time, and the saltwater lagoons that we have in the Monegros,” he says. “This means that we have a lot of different species in a very short space of time,” concludes Tirado.

The ornithological diversity of the territory deserves a separate chapter, since its richness includes, especially, two large groups: birds of prey and steppe birds. Within the former, Aragon offers them enclaves such as rocky cliffs, but also a search area for forest birds of prey, so you can find specimens of these two areas.

Bearded vultures, whose population is the most abundant in Europe, Egyptian vultures, kestrels and kestrels, golden, short-toed and booted eagles, red and black kites, goshawks, sparrowhawks, peregrine falcons, eagle owls live in Aragonese lands… “The number of birds of prey is incredible”, summarizes Tirado.

Other species that do not breed, but find abundant food in the Aragonese lands, also pass through here. These are the imperial eagles, “the most famous in southern Spain”, which usually come to this territory “because of the population explosion of rabbits in the Ebro valley” and spend “whole months” in this environment.

As for steppe birds, environments such as the Monegros, Belchite, Alcañiz or the moors of Teruel are favorable for the proliferation of species such as the Black-bellied Sandgrouse or the Eurasian Meadowlark, called in Aragon “rocín”. Also, bustards, the little bustard and the red-billed chough. The latter is also a good indicator of the state of health of agricultural ecosystems and is abundant in the Ebro valley.

Also, other lesser-known species, linked to scrubland environments, such as warblers. “They are very difficult to see because they hide, but they are easily heard,” he says. Tirado. Also, the black wheatear, which is found in small rocky cliffs, or the wallcreeper, a bird that breeds above 1,000 meters above sea level and in winter descends to the Ebro valley.

Threatened, but well preserved

Fortunately, Aragon maintains in a good state of conservation enough territory to foster such extensive biodiversity. “Thousands of hectares are still quite well preserved, and this, internationally, is a bomb, nobody has it,” emphasizes the head of SEO-Birdlife in the Community.

However, he warns about the deterioration that steppe areas may suffer with the diversification of agriculture, especially with irrigation, incompatible with steppe birds inhabiting these environments. On this issue, he reports that these areas are, unfortunately, “in free fall”. The same is not true of forest ecosystems, environments which, despite the fires, “are in a very good state of conservation”.

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