Mediterranean Ecosystems

You are here

Course Information
Biological Sciences
Environmental Studies
Terms offered: 
Language of instruction: 
Contact Hours: 

Must have at least one college level semester of biology or permission from the instructor.


An introduction to the study of Mediterranean-type ecosystems: The course covers the main topics on basic Ecology (abiotic factors, interactions, disturbance, succession, diversity) while providing a comprehensive picture of the main current ecological problems, such as invasions, global warming, loss of biodiversity, habitat restoration, etc., all in the context of Mediterranean ecology. Three field trips complete the course, with field work directly related to the topics offered in the classroom, including field sampling, collection of data, and a basic in situ analysis, in order to draw conclusions.

Watch this short video to get an overview for this course!

Attendance policy: 

Attendance is mandatory for all IES Abroad classes, including course-related excursions. Any exams, tests, presentations, or other work missed due to student absences can only be rescheduled in cases of documented medical or family emergencies. If a student misses more than three classes in any course 3% of the final class grade will be deducted for every unjustified student absence. Six absences in any course will result in a failing grade.

Learning outcomes: 

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Recognize the major processes that determine the structure and functioning of Mediterranean-type ecosystems.
  • Differentiate the singularities of Mediterranean-type ecosystems and the factors that define them with respect to other ecosystem types of the world.
  • Recognize main biotic and abiotic drives of Mediterranean-type ecosystem functioning.
  • Recognize the influence and the impact of human beings in the history and configuration of ecosystems.
Method of presentation: 

Lectures, case studies, group discussions, and three field study visits. For each unit, the instructor will provide a general outline of the subject, and later the topic will be approached and discussed with specific texts that the students must read (readings indicated for each unit, see below). List of readings may be slightly modified to incorporate new scholarship on the subject.

Field study: 
  • Field trip 1: Cerro Gordo-Maro Natural area (in the border between Granada and Málaga provinces) and forest in the area of “Sierra de Cázulas”.
    • Sea shore ecosystems and introduction to Mediterranean forests across an altitudinal gradient.  During the morning, field work will be related to characteristics of the terrestrial habitats close to the sea, and to the study of processes like pollination and pollination systems and mutualistic plant-animal interactions. Attention will also be paid to the major ecological problems faced by the Mediterranean sea. On the way back to Granada, several stops will be made looking at different plant communities as altitude increases.
  • Field trip 2: Badland area of Guadix basin, Sierra de Baza Natural Park, and Cabo de Gata Natural Park.
    • In the Guadix basin the field work will be related to plant-plant interaction and facilitation with special emphasis in dry environments. We will analyze the spatial relationship between two common species in the area, a shrub (Retama sphaerocarpa) and a scrub (Artemisia barrelieri). After data collection, the students will calculate a few parameters with the help of a pocket calculator and will test whether these two species are positively or negatively associated. The results will be discussed in the context of the competition-facilitation gradient, and other examples will be also discussed in situ. At Sierra de Baza Natural Park we will study species interactions and cascade consequences at ecosystem level: connections between the mistletoe, Thrushes, and the juniper. Cabo de Gata is a semi-desert area that limits with the Mediterranean sea at the SW corner of the Iberian Peninsula (province of Almería). Bedrock, proximity to the sea, orography and aridity creates an ecosystem dominated by bushes and very often salt-resistant (halophytes). A marsh with a rich bird life will be also visited. Topics of paleoecology, adaptations to dry and salty conditions, and relevance of litoral marshes for animal populations (particularly birds) will be discussed. The region has also an important are of volcanic origin, whose relevance will be discussed.
  • Field trip 3: Sierra de Huétor Natural Park or Sierra Nevada National Park (depending on weather conditions).
    • Ecology of regeneration after fire. The field work will be related to disturbance and succession (fire ecology), including aspects of plant dispersal and plant defense against herbivores. The dynamics of regeneration after fire will be analyzed in a burnt area, considering the two main disturbance agents: Fire (high intensity, low frequency) and herbivores (low intensity, high frequency). Students will sample the recruitment of the main shrubs and trees. With the data collected and a few simple calculations the successional trends of the community will be discussed, and their consequences for management.
Required work and form of assessment: 

Attendance to all lectures is mandatory.

  • Reports on each field study visit (15% each) - 45%
  • Final examination, which will cover all class work and field trips - 55%



Unit 1

Setting the scene: the physical and climatic scenario.

  • Recent geological history of the Mediterranean Region.
  • Topography.
  • Distribution of main mountain ranges and effect on local climatic conditions.
  • Determinants of climate in the Mediterranean region. Vicissitudes during the Pleistocene. Current climatic conditions.
  • Other Mediterranean-type regions in the world.
Unit 2

Environmental (abiotic) conditions

  • Light, temperature and water.
  • Intensity and spatial pattern of distribution.
  • Effect on organisms.
  • Seasonality: uncoupling of conditions for growth.
  • Nutrients.
  • Source of nutrients.
  • Spatial and temporal pattern of variation.
  • Association with other organisms (mycorrhizas).
  • Implications of the abiotic environment for plant recruitment and growth.
Unit 3

Life-history traits and functional attributes in Mediterranean-type ecosystems

  • Evergreen-ness and sclerophylly.
  • Life forms and their relation to the habitat.
  • Flowering patterns and pollination systems: anemogamous versus zoogamous strategies.
  • Seed dormancy as a way of resistance.
Unit 4

Adaptations of plants and animals to cope with Mediterranean conditions

  • Adaptations to water scarcity.
  • Adaptations to nutrient deficits.
  • Adaptations to high light intensity and ultraviolet radiation.
  • Plant and animal acclimation to environmental conditions.
Unit 5

Interactions among plants: competition, facilitation and parasitism

  • Plant competition in Mediterranean-type ecosystems: Magnitude and relevance.
  • Allelopathy.
  • From competition to facilitation: two extremes of a gradient.
  • Mechanisms of facilitation.
  • Plants that parasite plants.
Unit 6

Interactions with animals

  • Animals as predators: Vertebrate herbivores, invertebrate herbivores, and seed predators.
  • Defense mechanisms in plants: chemical defense, physical defense, and associational resistance.
  • Adaptations to high herbivore pressure.
  • Animals as pollinators and animals as seed dispersers: from predation to mutualism.
Unit 7

Disturbance in Mediterranean-type ecosystems

  • Disturbance regimes: Magnitude, frequency, and recurrence.
  • Herbivores as a source of disturbance in Mediterranean-type ecosystems.
  • Fire as a major disturbance in Mediterranean type-ecosystems.
  • Fire ecology in Mediterranean-type ecosystems.
  • Coping with fire: resprouters and seeders.
Unit 8

Succession in Mediterranean-type ecosystems

  • Succession.
  • Types of succession: Primary and secondary; alogenic and autogenic.
  • Mechanisms of succession.
  • Synchronic and diachronic models.
  • Role of abiotic factors in succession.
  • Role of biotic factors in succession.
  • Organisms traits linked to successional scenarios.
  • Succession and climax.
  • Critics to the climax.
Unit 9

Biodiversity of the Mediterranean region

  • Measurements of biodiversity.
  • Hot spots of biodiversity.
  • Present day biodiversity in the Mediterranean region.
  • Rate of endemisms.
  • Paleohistorical causes of high biodiversity in the Mediterranean region.
  • Patterns of diversity: effect of altitude, latitude, and habitat productivity.
  • Biodiversity, productivity, and stability.
  • Redundancy and biodiversity.
  • The decline of biodiversity in recent times.
  • Biological invasions.
  • Consequences of biological invasions for local biota.
Unit 10

Global change and Mediterranean-type ecosystems

  • Causes of global change.
  • Consequences of global change on climatic parameters: predictions for the Mediterranean area.
  • Consequences of global change on the biota: mechanism of action.
  • Biota with higher risk under global change.


Required readings: 
  • Blondel J., Aronson J., Bodiou J-Y and Boeuf G. (2010). Setting the scene. Pp. 1-22 in: The Mediterranean region. Biological diversity in space and time (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. Chapter 1.
  • Blondel J., Aronson J., Bodiou J-Y and Boeuf G. (2010). Life history and terrestrial ecosystem functioning. Pp. 165-185 in: The Mediterranean region. Biological diversity in space and time (2nd ed.) Oxford University Press. Chapter 8.
  • Médail F (2008). Mediterranean. Pp. 2296-2308 in: Encyclopedia of Ecology. Elsevier.
  • Joffre R., Rambal S. and Damesin C. (2007). Functional attributes in Mediterranean-type ecosystems. Pp. 285-312 in: Pugnaire, F.I. and Valladares, F. (eds.), Functional plant ecology (2nd ed.). Marcel Dekker. Chapter 9.
  • Thompson J.D. (2005). The biogeography and ecology of endemism. Pp. 38-66 in: Plant evolution in the Mediterranean. Oxford University Press. Chapter 2.
  • Baraza E., Zamora R., Hódar J.A. and Gómez J.M. (2007). Plant-herbivore interaction: beyond a binary vision. Pp. 481-514 in: Pugnaire, F.I. and Valladares, F. (eds.), Functional plant ecology (2nd ed.). Marcel Dekker. Chapter 16.