The ancient forests of La Gomera, Canary Islands, and their sensitivity to environmental change

1. Garajonay National Park in La Gomera (Canary Islands) contains one of the largest remnant areas of a forest formation once widespread throughout Europe and North Africa. Here, we aim to address the long-term dynamics (the last 9600 cal. years) of the monteverde forest (laurel forest and Morella-Erica heath) located close to the summit of the National Park (1487 m a.s.l.) and determine past environmental and human impacts. 2. We used palaeoecological (fossil pollen, microscopic and macroscopic charcoal) and multivariate ecological techniques to identify compositional change in the monteverde forest in relation to potential climatic and human influences, based on the analysis of a core site at 1250-m elevation. 3. The regional mid-Holocene change towards drier conditions was matched in this system by a fairly rapid shift in representation of key forest elements, with declines in Canarian palm tree (Phoenix canariensis), Canarian willow (Salix canariensis) and certain laurel forest taxa and an increase in representation of the Morella-Erica woody heath. 4. Charcoal data suggest that humans arrived on the island between about 3000 and 1800 years ago, a period of minimal vegetation change. Levels of burning over the last 800 years are among the lowest of the entire 9600 years. 5. Synthesis. A rapid climatic-induced shift of forest taxa occurred 5500 years ago, with a decrease in hygrophilous species in the pollen record. In contrast, we found no evidence of a significant response to human colonization. These findings support the idea that Garajonay National Park is protecting a truly ancient relict, comprising a largely natural rather than cultural legacy.