The influence of natural fire and cultural practices on island ecosystems: Insights from a 4,800 year record from Gran Canaria, Canary Islands

Aim: Long-term ecological data provide a stepped frame of island ecosystem transformation after successive waves of human colonization, essential to determine conservation and management baselines. However, the timing and ecological impact of initial human settlement on many islands is still poorly known. Here, we report analyses from a 4800-year sedimentary sequence from Gran Canaria (Canary Islands), with the goal of disentangling forest responses to natural fire from early human pressure on the island. Location: La Calderilla, a volcanic maar caldera at 1,770ám a.s.l. on Gran Canaria. Taxon: Plants and fungi. Methods: A core from the caldera infill was analysed for sediment properties, pollen, micro- and macrocharcoal, with radiocarbon and biochronology dating. Fossil data were statistically zoned and interpreted with the help of cross-correlation and ordination analyses. Surface samples and a pollenľvegetation training set were used as modern analogues for vegetation reconstruction. Results: Before human settlement (4,800ľ2,000ácal. yrábp), pine (Pinus canariensis) pollen dominated. Extensive dry pine forests characterized the highlands, although with temporary declining phases, followed by prompt (sub-centennial scale) recovery. Towards 2,280ácal.áyrábpáthere was a shift to open vegetation, marked by an increase in coprophilous spores. Coincidental with independent evidence of human settlement in the pine belt (2,000ľ470ácal. yrábp) there was a decline of pine and a peak in charcoal. Following historic settlement (470ľ0ácal. yrábp), pollen producers from anthropogenic habitats, secondary vegetation and coprophilous fungi increased in abundance, reflecting higher pressure of animal husbandry and farming. Modern moss polsters reflect extensive reforestation since 1950áceá(Common Era). Main conclusions: From 4,800ácal. yrábp,áthe pristine vegetation covering the Gran Canaria highlands was a mosaic of dry pine forests and open vegetation. The pine forests sustained intense fires, which may well have promoted habitat diversity. Human interference was initiated around 2,280ácal. yrábpáprobably by recurrent cultural firing and animal husbandry, triggering a steady trend of forest withdrawal and expansion of grasses and scrubs, until the final disappearance of the pine forest locally in the 20th century. Grasslands were found to be of ancient cultural origin in the summit areas of Gran Canaria, although they underwent an expansion after the Castilian Conquest.