Due to its isolated location in the far south of Europe, the flora and fauna of the Sierra Nevada are unique. There is incredible biodiversity, and even if you have no particular knowledge of the subject, you will soon notice lots of plants and animals that are totally unlike anything you will have seen elsewhere in Europe. Geology as well as geography has played a part in this: the Sierra Nevada was formed by the collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates during the Tertiary Period, and is really a continuation of the Rif mountains in Morocco.
One of the emblematic animals of the Sierra Nevada is the Spanish ibex, and as there are now around 15,000 of them in the national park, you’re almost certain to spot one if you go walking in the high mountains for a few days. Raptors are also common, as well as a multitude of other, smaller birds. The Snow Star is the most famous of the endemic plants, but others include the rascaviejas (“old woman-scratcher”) and barberry bush.
The Spanish ibex is certainly the mammal that you are most likely to come across when trekking in the Sierra Nevada, and it is not uncommon to see them in large groups. They are not very shy, but generally move away if you get much closer than around fifty metres. They’re incredibly sure-footed climbers, and think nothing of heading up what seem like vertical slopes. Apart from domestic animals, such as cows and goats, the other mammals that you are most likely to see are rabbits, hares and squirrels. The mountains are also home to foxes, badgers, martens and wild cats, but unless you are very patient, you are relatively unlikely to spot them.
Raptors soaring in search of prey, on the other hand, are a common and impressive sight. Native species include the Golden Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Common Kestrel, Little Owl and Eurasian Eagle-owl. There are lots of other birds too, such as the European Goldfinch, Serin, Ortolan, Dartford Warbler and Wheateater, to mention just a few of the over 60 species found here. The national park also provides welcome sanctuary for game birds like the Red-legged Partridge and Common Quail.
Lizards love sun-bathing on paths, but tend to scuttle off into the rocks when anyone approaches. The other and less immediately obvious reptiles and amphibians that live in the Sierra Nevada include various species of toads, frogs and snakes, such as the Snub-nosed Viper, Common Midwife Toad and Mediterranean Painted Frog.
Most of the year, and particularly at high altitudes, insects are unlikely to bother you much, but if you look out for them, there are plenty of interesting varieties. For instance, there are twenty species of butterfly that are unique to the Sierra Nevada, including the Sierra Nevada Blue. Dragonflies, grasshoppers, caterpillars and beetles are also all abundant here. However, due to the harsh conditions – including low humidity, abrupt temperature changes between day and night and strong winds – most of the insects are non-flying, and spend as much time as possible on the ground.
During the last ice age, species moved south to escape the colder climate in the north, and as the climate grew warmer again, these species were able to survive by taking refuge in the mountains. As a result, there are around 2,100 plant species here, more than are found in the whole of the British Isles.
The vegetation depends very much on the altitude, and there are five distinct climatic zones. Below 700 metres you find sub-tropical fruit trees, or in uncultivated areas common juniper, rosemary and dwarf gorse. Between around 700 and 1,300 metres above sea level there are lots of fruit orchards, as well as fig trees, olives, wild thyme and lavender. In spring the meadows at these altitudes are full of colourful flowers. Holm oaks, chestnuts and poplars are some of the trees that you will find between altitudes of 1,300 and 1,900 metres.
It is above 1,900 metres that the plants become most interesting from a botanical point of view. The trees here are Scots Pine, but mainly there are small shrubs and hardy flowers. This is where you will find the Snow Star, as well as a variety of small, prickly shrubs capable of surviving the combination of hot and dry summers with winter temperatures that drop as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius. They grow low to the ground so they don’t get damaged by the wind, and their domed shape keeps the snow out, trapping a pocket of warmer air beneath the leaves.
A good way to get an idea of the range of species to be found in the Sierra Nevada is to visit one of the Botanical Gardens dotted around the National Park, the most accessible of which is near the Pradollano ski station, just off the A-395.
Flowers bloom at surprisingly high altitudes, including the autumn-flowering Crocus Nudiflorus (right) and the Sierra Nevada Violet.