Contrary to established opinion, the incredibly endangered Iberian Lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle did not originate in Iberia's Mediterranean forests.
A new study by Juan Negro and Miguel Ferrer working with the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) and published in Conservation Biology shows that the ancestors of both species came originally from far to the East in the steppes of Asia Minor, and did not arrive in the Peninsula until one million years ago. The researchers compared the mitochondrial DNA of the Eurasian lynx and the European Imperial Eagle with the Iberian species, and found that both separated around one million years ago at the start of the Quaternary, when a series of intense ice ages swept across Eurasia. As the weather grew colder both south western populations were pushed into the Mediterranean in search of ground squirrels until they finally reached Iberia.
With the cold, prey must have become scarce from Greece to Italy and the imperial eagle and the lynx died out. The populations which reached Iberia were saved by the presence of that most Spanish of mammals: the rabbit, at the time, endemic and virtually restricted to the Peninsula. The oldest existing fossil of a rabbit is a specimen from 2.5 million years ago found in Granada. In fact, the rabbit did not really expand from Iberia until the Phoenicians, who named the territory Hispania or 'Land of Rabbits', began to export it around the Mediterranean. The eagle and the lynx were trapped. The nearest ground squirrel lay 4,000 kilometres away in Hungary. As the researchers put it, "The rabbit saved them from extinction and became the basis of their diet, making them prisoners of the Peninsula.".
However, the report is extremely gloomy about the prospects for recovery of both species, seeing them in light of the findings as inherently fragile species. Extinction will always hover over them as a real threat. Whatever the case, it once again underlines that the only chance they have is to increase the wild rabbit population, decimated by disease and to preserve the Iberian Peninsula scrublands and open woods that they both depend on. After 20 years and millions of euros spent on boosting their populations, there are fewer than 200 breeding pairs of the eagle and only around 150-200 lynx left