Aragón possesses a wide range of landscapes; from alpine to semi-desert steppe land. These contrasts within a 47.720 Km2 area, form a mosaic of micro environments that give the area a very varied biodiversity with many species of flora and fauna
There are few but very characteristic species of amphibians and reptiles in mountainous areas, such as the Pyrenean newt and the common salamander. There are also midwife toads, spotted and common toads among other species and different species of frog, although none that are exclusive to the Pyrenees. Amphibians are very much connected to the water and live in pools, tarns, lakes and streams, although at a certain altitude, the water is too cold for them. As for reptiles, there are slow worms, rock and iberian lizards and other species. The asp, one of the most dangerous species because of its deadly bite, lives at altitudes of up to 2.900 metres.
Alpine birdlife tends to be limited by harsh environmental conditions and scarcity of food. At high altitude in the Pyrenees, shrubland gives way to pastureland and rocky outcrops; a desolate landscape where some species of bird such as choughs, rock climbers, alpine sparrows, snow partridges and others, live. The pasturelands are covered with rocks and it is common to see birds of prey such as the royal eagle, the kite, the Lammergeier vulture and the Egyptian vulture, which devour the remains of dead animals
On sub alpine ground, among the pines , at a lower altitude there is a much greater variety of birdlife such as capercaillies, short toed treecreepers, robins, wrens etc.
The large mammals living in the Pyrenees are nothing like those that lived in prehistoric, or even more recent times, when there were still a lot of bears, wolves, chamois…. Among mammals living in the Pyrenees at present are marmots, wild cats, fallow deer, mountain goats, red deer, wild boar and foxes. There are only about twenty bears remaining in the central part of the Pyrenees.
Many factors contribute to the variety of environments present in Aragón nd its high level of biodiversity.
On the highest Aragonese peaks live some birds of Arctic origin such as the rock ptarmigan which has managed to adapt to this environment, as in summer it is brown and in winter it changes its feathers and becomes white except for its tail, its beak and a red line across its black eyes.
The ermine is also of Arctic origin and sheds its coat in autumn to become white and therefore invisible in the snow. The ermine hunts the few sedentary birds in the region and moles and fieldmice.
The river pipit is also to be found in this region, as well as choughs and other types of alpine birds that have adapted to conditions and avoid harsh weather by fling down to the plains along with the transhumant alpine accentor.
The wallcreeper that lives in colonies on the highest, most inhospitable rock faces, climbs gracefully over cliffs at over 2,000 metres. The alpine sparrow also manages to camouflage itself in the snow thanks to the white patches on its body.
The Lammergeier vulture is also a snow lover and, although it sometimes nests at lower heights, it often does so at over 2,000 metres in complete shadow.
The Mediterranean mountains are lower and have less rainfall. There is a different type of fauna here, adapted to heights of 2,000 metres and under.
Birds are the most characteristic feature of this area. There is a particular variety of swift that stays all year round in Aragón as does the crag martin, from Guara South. The solitary and red martin, the size of a thrush, also live in rocky parts of this region. Other species of interest in the Mediterranean are the black redstar, and the blackeared wheatear.
Woods of this type are home to a wide variety of fauna, although many species, such as the Spanish ibex, have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing.
The brown bear is well on the way to being considered an extinct species. Its habitat has been so reduced that it is disappearing from the woods in Aragón. The capercaillie and the whitebacked woodpecker are also endangered species. However, these woods are home to carnivores such as mountain cats and martins, agile tree climbers who hunt birds and love honey when they find it in wild honeycombs.
Herbivores such as the fallow and red deer, died out at one stage then were reintroduced and now numbers are increasing. Woodpeckers, such as the white back and black beak, are easy to find in the deadwood forests. There are also reptiles, especially in the grass in open clearings, such as the common adder with its poisonous bite and the legless lizard.
The Moncayo mountain, has atlantic type woodland and a variety of animals. Its beech trees and oceanic climate allow the presence of such central European species as the partridge.
There is not much woodland in dry atmospheres but there are Mediterranean type woodlands that grow in arid areas and are characterised by holm oaks, Aleppo pines which are home to a wide range of fauna. There are impressive insects such as the “flying deer”, a massive beetle, the biggest in Europe, a protected species that is easy to find, especially in the evenings during July. It has very large jaws that resemble a deer’s antlers and are used for fighting over females.
In these hot regions it is east too to find the long tailed lizard sunning itself among the rosemary plants and there are snakes too, the commonest being the aggressive and agile ladder snake which grows up to 160 cm long.
There are woods where birds of prey nest, although they find their food on nearby plains. These birds are the royal eagle, the goshawk, the kite among others. There are smaller birds too such as various types of warbler, as well as partridges, wood pigeons, doves, cuckoos, owls, nightingales….
There is also a carnivorous mammal, the genet, which used to be used as a domestic rat killer,that is common in the holm oak woods of the Mediterranean.
Fauna in arid deforested areas
The Ebro valley occupies a large part of Aragón where there is a predominantly arid climate. Here, there are birds used to living on open plains with tall grass, such as quails and bustards. Certain birds of prey also frequent the fields where cereal crops are cultivated, flying low over the crops to surprise their prey. In the wide open Aragonese drylands many Montagu’s harrier nest among the cereal crops with all the danger from combine harvesters that this implies for their chicks. Dupont’s larks nest in the most arid areas of Aragón, where vegetation is very scarce.
There is a variety of familiar animals in this habitat; hares, rabbits, foxes, partridges and larks.
A tree or group of trees between fields is the ideal place for crows and rooks to nest. Long eared owls and falcons may install themselves in abandoned nests. Dwarf falcons, stock pigeons and some types of owl nest in holes in the roofs and eaves of abandoned buildings.
Grain eating birds join together in large flocks which, at the least sign of danger, flee en masse. Over the great open plains you can see enormous flocks of canaries, goldfinches and other species suddenly rise up only to land again shortly after.
Birds living in the uncultivated steppe lands are mocking birds, larks, warblers and many others.
Great rock faces. Aerial ecosystems
There are enormous rock formations scattered around aragón which provide safe places for many animals. In Aragón there are many places to observe rockface wildlife. The best of these are the top of the San Pedro mount in the province of Teruel, in Oliete and the Mallos de Riglos (pillar like rock formations), as well as those near Agüero.
On the top of the San Pedro mount one can see, in the early evening, all the birds coming home to roost, pigeons, swallows, swifts arrive at the same time as the bats leave to look for food.
Walking in the “Mallos”, it is easy to see a multitude of bird life. The vertical walls, exposed to the sun, quickly warm up and the hot air attracts small flying insects and spiders which form a sort of “air plankton” that feeds various types of bird, that have no trouble in soaring rapidly to high altitudes: swifts, swallows and others that nest in the rocks such as choughs.
Birds of prey such as the royal owl and the royal eagle nest in the rocks, as do vultures, which live in large communities in all three provinces of Aragón.
The lammergeier vulture is worthy of note as it is an endangered species although relatively common in the Pyrenees. It has adapted in a surprising way, feeding on bones, sometimes fresh, with remains of meat and tendons. Sometimes they make do with old bones and what other birds have finished with. If the bones are too big to digest whole the birds throw them against rocks to break them. They generally nest on small ledges, making large nests of dry branches and twigs, where the female lays the eggs and, of the two chicks born, only one ever survives.
Unfortunately, despite all efforts made to prevent it, some of these vultures die every year at the hands of illegal hunters, poisons, electric cables etc..