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European bison, once nearly extinct, thrive in southern Spain

European bison, along with red deer and fallow deer, are part of an exciting ecological experiment unfolding at the El Encinarejo farm in the diverse and arid landscape of southern Spain.

Nestled in the Sierra de Andújar’s sprawling 1,000 hectares, this area serves as a sanctuary of Mediterranean scrubland, characterized by dense holm oak groves and a rich underbrush of mastic, lavender, and rosemary.

This unique setting is the backdrop for an intriguing study into the habitat adaptability and biodiversity of these large herbivores.

The research, conducted by a team from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the Spanish National Research Council, delves into the dietary habits of European bison, comparing their feeding patterns across different seasons.

Utilizing advanced microhistological analysis, the scientists have meticulously examined epidermal fragments in faecal samples to determine the composition of the animals’ diets.

Seasonal dietary patterns of the European bison

The study reveals fascinating variations in plant consumption among the species and across seasons.

During the colder months of autumn and winter, woody plants dominate the diet of European bison, as well as the deer species. In contrast, the warmer seasons see a shift towards grasses in summer and a mix of leguminous and herbaceous plants in spring.

Remarkably, European bison show a distinctive preference for grasses, making up 21% of their diet, a stark contrast to the lesser 8% observed in red deer.

Jordi Bartolomé, the study’s lead author, highlighted the significance of the findings: “This is the first study that evidences the consumption of mastic by European bison. The abundant presence in their diet in all seasons indicates that it is a very important food source.”

The resurgence of a species

The European bison, the region’s largest mammal and a poignant symbol of wildlife conservation, was once on the brink of extinction. Now listed as an endangered species, its past and ongoing reintroduction across Europe has showcased its remarkable adaptability to various bioclimatic conditions.

The creation of new breeding groups in semi-free conditions is part of a broader strategy aimed not only at the survival of the species but also at enhancing the biodiversity of their new habitats.

“The main conclusion we can draw from this work is the existence of a distribution of trophic resources among the three species of herbivores when they coexist in the same habitat,” explained study co-author Jorge Cassinello.

“This seems to demonstrate their ability to coexist together, and, moreover, the ability of the bison to adapt to the bioclimatic conditions of Mediterranean environments.”

Implications for bison conservation

The implications of these findings pave the way for practical conservation measures that focus on the ecosystem functions of the species rather than their historical ranges.

As the authors suggest, the time has come to implement strategies that enhance biodiversity and maintain the ecological roles of these majestic animals, whether or not they historically roamed the Iberian Peninsula.

The European bison’s successful adaptation to the Mediterranean climate of southern Spain provides hope for its continued resurgence. It also underscores the importance of thoughtful, science-driven conservation efforts that can lead to a more biodiverse and resilient ecosystem.

More about European bison

The European bison, also known as the wisent, is a fascinating and majestic creature that plays a vital role in the biodiversity of Europe’s forests. This species is the heaviest surviving wild land animal in Europe and closely resembles the American bison, though there are some distinct differences in their morphology and behavior.

Successful restoration efforts

Historically, the European bison roamed across much of the continent, from Spain in the west to the Volga River and the Caucasus in the east. However, due to extensive hunting and habitat loss, their numbers drastically declined, leading to their extinction in the wild by 1927. 

Remarkably, conservationists managed to save the species through a careful breeding program based on the few remaining individuals in zoos. This has been one of the most successful restoration efforts for a large mammal, with the species reintroduced into the wild in several European countries since the 1950s.

Current distribution 

Today, the European bison is found primarily in Poland, Belarus, and other parts of Eastern Europe, with smaller reintroduced populations in places like Germany, France, and Spain.

These bison prefer mixed woodland and grassland habitats where they graze on a variety of vegetation. Their diet helps maintain the ecological balance of their habitats, making them a keystone species in their ecosystems.

Limited gene pool

Despite the success of reintroduction programs, the European bison remains classified as vulnerable due to its limited gene pool, which poses challenges for its long-term genetic diversity. Conservation efforts continue to focus on expanding and connecting different bison populations to enhance genetic exchange and ensure the species’ survival.

Cultural significance 

The European bison holds significant cultural value in many countries where it has been reintroduced, symbolizing the wilderness and natural heritage of Europe. Efforts to protect and expand bison populations are seen as a commitment to preserving the continent’s biodiversity for future generations.

The study is published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.


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