Laurissilva Forest – One of the greatest tourist attractions of the Island of Madeira lies in its spectacular landscape. Its luxurious vegetation continues to fascinate all those closely drawn to nature.
This archipelago, included in the bio-geographic region of Macaronesia, retains a natural heritage of great scientific value, distinguished by UNESCO as World Natural Heritage.
Madeira’s indigenous Laurissilva forest, occupying an area of 15 thousand hectares, forms part of this vast layer of vegetation that covers the island. This ancient forest dates back to the Tertiary Era and includes very large trees amongst which is the Til, (Ocotea foetens), the Laurel-Tree, (Laurus novo canariensis) and the Brazilian Mahogany, (Persea indica). Surrounding the trees are mosses and many other bushes, including heather and ferns.
Amongst the bird life there are rare species such as the Long-toed pigeon, (Columba trocaz) and Zino’s petrel or the Madeira Freira petrel, (Pterodroma madeira).
Considered a living relic, almost all of it has been classified as part of the Madeira Nature Reserve, and is deemed a Total Preservation Area.
WORLD BIOSPHERE RESERVE – SANTANA
Biosphere Reserve – Santana municipality, located on the north of the Island, was honoured on June 2011 by the UNESCO with the award of “Biosphere Reserve”, recognizing the richness of an ecosystem, which strives to connect the importance of the sustainable use of biodiversity preservation.
This reserve combines both land and maritime areas which integrated in this municipality, displaying a large diversity of natural, human, landscape, cultural and environment values of local, regional, national and international interest
The rich natural ecosystem incorporates a high degree of endemic species that represents most of the significant ecological units of the island, in terms of marine and coastal varieties, and also some high altitude vegetation species, amongst which Laurissilva Forest, World Natural Heritage by UNESCO.
Madeira Island is very rich in fauna, both in vertebrates and in invertebrates, particularly endemic species of terrestrial molluscs, and very significantly, of insects.
In the Laurisilva, there is a small number of bird species and a high rate of endemic species. In the more inland forest areas, and in a better state of preservation, about seven species of birds are usually observed. The symbolic trocaz pigeon( Columba trocaz) stands out. It is considered one of the oldest examples of Macaronesian birds, with a selective diet and partially dependent on the fruit of several tree species, of particular relevance being the til, and it is considered to be the sower for Laurisilva trees.
Another species of note is the bis-bis (Regulus madeirensis), a small bird, the smallest Madeiran bird, which feeds on insects, surely giving it a position of high importance at the level of the balance of the ecosystems.
The chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs madeirensis), subspecies endemic to Madeira Island is highly adapted to the island habitat. Other birds that appear with some frequency are the Eurasian blackbirds (Turdus merula cabrerae), the robin (Erithacus rubecula rubecula), the grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea schmitzi), and the two birds of prey, the buzzard (buteo buteo harterti) and the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus canariensis). In the higher areas of Laurisilva forest, where large trees begin to give way to moors, the Eurasian woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) also appears. This bird is very discreet and often goes unnoticed by visitors.
With regard to the fauna in the rocky massif, Zino’s petrel (Pterodroma madeira) must be highlighted. It is one of the most endangered seabirds in the world and occurs exclusively on Madeira Island. Its conservation status is “Endangered”. It lives exclusively in the sea, only coming ashore during the breeding season between late March and mid-October, when they can be heard returning to their nests at nightfall.
As for land invertebrates, the community of terrestrial arthropods is the one that has the greatest wealth of fauna, spread over a wide variety of groups. It should also be noted that the group of Arachnids has a fairly significant presence at the level of spiders, mites and pseudo scorpions, and others.
Invertebrates are the most interesting group in Ponta de São Lourenço. At the moment, 35 species of land molluscs are known, of which 24 are endemic. On Desembarcadouro Islet, 14 species, including 12 endemic, were identified, and there are 13 species, with 11 being endemic, on Farol Islet.
With regard to avifauna, seabirds such as Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris diomedea borealis), Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii), the Madeiran storm petrel (Oceanodroma castro) and the common tern Sterna hirundo nest here. One of the largest colonies of yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis atlantis) in the Region nests on Desembarcadouro Islet. As for land birds, Berthelot’s pipit (Anthus bertheloti bertheloti), the rock sparrow (Petronia petronia madeirensis) and the island canary (Serinus canaria canaria) are often found.
The Laurisilva Forest deserves special mention in the flora of Madeira. This is a formation of hygrophilous characteristics, endemic to Macaronesia, well-developed with important conservation areas, the only UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in Portugal where all the strata characteristic of this type of community is present. Some studies within the phytosociological scope recognise various climatic plant communities that are related to the bioclimatic floors in this forest formation. With a great diversity of flora, it is especially at the herbaceous strata level that most of the endemic species can be found. As an example, we can take theGoodyera macrophylla, an orchid endemic to Madeira Island, known as Madeira goodyera.
The Laurisilva forest is characterised by large trees, mostly belonging to the Lauraceae family the til (Ocotea foetens), the Madeira laurel (Laurus novocanariensis), the vinhatico (Persea indica) and the barbusano (Apollonias barbujana), in addition to others, such as the (Picconia excelsa), the lily of the valley tree (Clethra arborea), the aderno (Heberdenia excelsa), the holly (Ilex perado) or the (juniper Juniperus cedrus). Underneath the canopy of large trees, shrubs abound, including tree heather and (Erica scoparia), the Madeira blueberry (Vaccinium padifolium), (Genista tenera), the cornelian cherry (Rhamnus glandulosa), the mountain mocano (Pittosporum coriaceum and Musschia wollastonii), as well as a lower stratum, rich in ferns, mosses, lichens, liverworts and other small plants, with numerous endemic species.
On Madeira Island, bryophytes are widely distributed, occurring from the sea coast to the high mountains of the interior. The geographical location of the island, the moderate Atlantic climate and the terrain with deep valleys and steep cliffs determine the existence of a great diversity of habitats, which allow the development and maintenance of a great wealth of flora.
Another important place in terms of flora is the rocky massif. The plant cover in this area is characterised by the presence of several plants endemic to Madeira, examples of which are the Madeira violet Viola paradoxa. Also found here are Madeira grey heather (Erica maderensis), the Madeiran orchid (Dactylorhiza foliosa and Anthyllis lemanniana). All these plants are perfectly adapted to the harsh climate of this area, where wide temperature ranges and high winds reign. They play a very important role in the uptake of water through hidden rainfall, in addition to contributing to fixing the soil and preventing erosion.
The flora in Ponta de São Lourenço is of equal importance. There are currently 157 distinct vascular plants, of which 141 are on the peninsula and 71 on Desembarcadouro Islet. Plants observed are (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum), (Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum) and (Suaeda vera), (Bassia tomentosa), sea fennel (Crithmum maritimum) and some endemic species such as: (Echium nervosum), (Mandon’s chrysanthemum Argyranthemum pinnatifidum succulentum) and the (Madeira levkoje Matthiola maderensis). There is also the rare sea heath (Frankenia laevi), as well as (Silene vulgaris marítima), (Silene behen), (Astragalus solandri and the Madeira calendula Calendula maderensis). There are extensive spots of Trevina and several species endemic to Macaronesia and Madeira on Desembarcadouro Islet, such as: (Alpista Phalaris maderensis),(Beta patula) exclusive species to the islet, (Crepis divaricata), (minutina Plantago coronopus), sea colewort (Crambe fruticosa and Rumex bucephalophorus canariensis).
The fauna of Porto Santo is found mainly on the Porto Santo islets, which are a prime location for nesting seabirds.
The fauna on the islets includes nesting birds such as Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris diomedea), Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii), the band-rumped storm petrel (Oceanodroma castro), the little seawater (Puffinus assimilis baroli), the common tern (Sterna hirundo), the yellow-legged gull (Larus cachinnans atlantis), Berthelot’s pipit (Anthus berthelotii madeirensis), the plain swift (Apus unicolor), the Atlantic canary (Serinus canaria canaria) and the rock sparrow (Petronia petronia madeirensis). The gecko (Teira dugesii jogeri) and two tarantulas native to Porto Santo (Hogna biscoitoi and Hogna schmitzi) are also to be found.
The marine fauna is rich and diverse, largely due to the sinking of the ship ‘Madeirense’. This is a unique spot for scuba diving.
Because of its climatic and geological conditions, the flora of Porto Santo Island is found mainly on its islets, which are a favoured location for conservation of the flora of Macaronesia. The Porto Santo islets are protected by the PDM, the Natura Network 2000 and are also part of the Madeira Natural Park. They are rocky places, covered in shrubs and the coastal flora of Macaronesia.
Regarding the flora, shrubs and small trees can be found on the slopes here. Madeira sea stock (Matthiola madeirensis), Madeira spurge (Euphorbia piscatoria), Lotus glaucus, ice plants (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum and Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum) and marmulan (Sideroxylon mirmulans) are species worth seeing.
Lotus loweanus is a native species to Porto Santo and exists only on Cal, Ferro and Cenouras islets.
The vegetation on Cal islet is reputed to have consisted mainly of juniper and marmulan. Marmulan (Sideroxylon mirmulans) is now almost extinct but it is still the only existing native woody shrub. Cima islet is also said to have had many Dragon Trees (Dracaena draco) and many wild olive trees (Olea maderensis).
There is also a wide variety of lichens, especially Roccella tinctoria.
The Desertas Islands have many rare and endemic species, but it was the urgent need to preserve a small colony of Mediterranean monk seals, commonly known as seal monk, which originated the protection of this area.
The underwater fauna of the Desertas Islands is similar to the rest of the archipelago, with European and Mediterranean affinities, particularly at the level of fish and shellfish from the coast, such as chromis (Chromis limbata and Abudefduf luridus), golden grey mullet (Liza aurata), bogue (Boops boops), white seabream (Diplodus sp)., grouper (Serranus atricauda), parrotfish (Sparisoma cretense), barred hogfish (Bodianus scrofa), ornate wrasse (Thalassoma pavo), rock crab (Grapsus adscensionis), (Mediterranean slipper lobster Scyllarides latus).
Several species of turtles and cetaceans can be seen in the waters around these islands.
The Desertas Islands are an important centre for nesting seabirds, such as Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris diomedea borealis), the Madeiran storm petrel (Oceanodroma castro), Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii) and Fea’s (Petrel Pterodroma deserta). All these birds are inherently vulnerable species for which the Desertas Islands represent one of the last refuges worldwide.
Deserta Grande Island has the largest colony of Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii) in the Atlantic and possibly in the world. The Fea’s (Petrel Pterodroma deserta) nests exclusively in Bugio.
Thus, these islands play a crucial role in the conservation of these species.
As for resident birds, which are those that can be found throughout the year, stands out the Madeiran Berthelot’s Pipit (Anthus bertheloti madeirensis), an endemic subspecies on the Madeira Archipelago and the Atlantic canary (Serinus canaria canaria), an endemic subspecies in Macaronesia. Birds of prey can also be seen, in particular: the Canary Island kestrel (Falco tinnunculus canariensis), an endemic subspecies of Macaronesia, the buzzard (Buteo buteo harterti) and the barn owl (Tyto alba schmitzi), an endemic subspecies on the Madeira Archipelago.
Invertebrates are another group of animals of great interest. In the group of arthropods, of note is the wolf spider (Hogna ingens), endemic to these Islands. This arachnid has a very restricted area of distribution, inhabiting only Vale da Castanheira, on the northern edge of the top of Deserta Grande Island.
Knowledge of the malacological fauna of these Islands is still somewhat sparse. However, recent studies confirm the presence of about 50 species and subspecies of land molluscs on the Desertas Islands, 44 of which are endemic and some of them exclusive.
The Madeira lizard (Teira dugesii mauli) is the only terrestrial reptile that inhabits these islands, being an endemic subspecies of the Desertas Islands.
The vertebrate fauna of the Selvagens Islands is qualified by the wide range of nesting seabirds and the absence of native mammals.
These islands are a haven for nesting seabirds as they have particular conditions that are unique in the world. Of the nesting birds, nine species are known, including: Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris diomedea borealis), calcamar (Pelagodroma marina hypoleuca,) Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii) Madeiran storm petrel (Oceanodroma castro) and little shearwater (Puffinus assimilis baroli).
In this area, the colony of Cory’s shearwaters appears to be of the highest density in the world. However, the most numerous bird in these islands is the white-faced storm petrel.
The resident birds that can be found throughout the year on the Selvagens Islands are the Berthelot’s pipit (Anthus bertheloti bertheloti), a passerine whose subspecies is the same as that found on the Canary Islands but not on the archipelago of Madeira, and a small number of pairs of kestrels (falco tinnunculus canariensis), a small bird of prey whose subspecies is endemic to the Madeira Archipelago.
You can also see other birds that occasionally or accidentally visit the Selvagens Islands, especially in autumn and spring. These are birds that get lost on the migration routes and find here, in the middle of the Atlantic, the ideal place to rest and gather strength to continue their journey.
Vertebrate species that can be found are the Selvagens gecko (Tarentola bischoffi) and the Madeira lizard (Teira dugesii selvagensis), which appear exclusively on the Selvagens Islands.
These islands are also home to a significant number of native invertebrates, with a high number of endemic insects, especially coleoptera and lepidoptera.
In terrestrial gastropods, there are currently eight species on the Selvagens Islands. One is native to Macaronesia, (Ovatella aequalis)and one is native to the Selvagens Islands, (Theba macandrewiana).
The marine environment of these islands is characterised by its clear waters, where it has an abundant and diverse store of fauna.
Gastropods, such as periwinkles, snails, barnacles and limpets, are frequent in the rocky areas. Sea urchins are also often found, with the dominant species being the long-spined sea urchin (Diadema antillarum). Several species of sponges, anemones and starfish cohabit along with these animals.
With regard to fish, the chromis Chromis limbata and Abudefduf luridus, golden grey mullet Liza aurata, bogue Boops boops, white seabream Diplodus sp., grouper Serranus atricauda, parrotfish Sparisoma cretense, barred hogfish Bodianus scrofa and the ornate wrasse Thalassoma pavo are frequently observed.
In the waters surrounding these islands, several species of turtles and cetaceans can be observed.
The vegetation on the Selvagens Islands is comprised of perfectly adapted species to the soil and climatic conditions. The land flora includes more than a hundred species of vascular plants and has the highest percentage of endemic species per surface unit in the entire Macaronesia Region.
The vegetation on Selvagem Pequena Island and Fora Islet is composed only of indigenous and endemic species, with no invasive species. These two islands have a surprising number of exclusive species and plant cover.
Selvagem Grande Island also has peculiar vegetation cover and interesting flora endemic to the island, and others common to the remaining Selvagens Islands and Macaronesia. It is also the limit of distribution of certain species in the southern or in the northern hemisphere.
The Selvagens Islands have eleven exclusive endemic plants, which include Madeira squill Autonoe madeirensis, Argyranthemum thalassophilum, Lobularia canariensis ssp. rosula–venti, Lotus salvagensis, Monanthes lowei and Selvagens spurge Euphorbia anachoreta
In order to preserve this natural heritage, in 2001 eradication work began on invasive plants, i.e. plants that are not part of the indigenous flora of the area and that spread very easily, competing with and destroying the natural habitats of the indigenous species. Examples of species that are being monitored and controlled are wild tobacco Nicotiana glauca and more recently, Conyza bonariensis.
The marine flora on the Selvagens Islands shows similarities to the neighbouring archipelagos. The irregularity of the sea beds and the predominance of rocky substrates is propitious to colonisation by photophilic algae. Studies indicate the presence of 173 species of macro algae, are predominantly red algae.
ILHAS DESERTAS NATURE RESERVE
The Ilhas Desertas (total area of 1 421 hectares) include the Ilhéu Chão, Deserta Grande and Bugio. They are at about 22 miles to the southeast of the town of Funchal.
The islands constitute the last refuge of the monk seal named MonachusMonachus. The presence of these mammals led the Regional Government of Madeira to create the protected area of Ilhas Desertas in 1990. In 1992 the European Council classified these islands as Bioenergetics Reserve.
It is important to mention that the total ban of scuba fishing in this reserve. Advance permission from the park authorities is also needed before any vessel can anchor or visit Deserta Grande Island.
No boats are allowed to sail through the southern part of the reserve.
ILHAS SELVAGENS NATURE RESERVE
The Selvagens islands include two groups of small islands. Most notable of these are Selvagem Grande, Selvagem Pequena and Ilhéu de Fora. They are about 180 miles from Madeira Island and form the southernmost territory belonging to Portugal.
Ilhas Selvagens Nature Reserve was created in 1971 and is one of the oldest in Portugal. Today, it’s the only Portuguese reserve formally classified as such by the EC.
The flora of the Selvagens Islands at its most impressive on Selvagem Pequena and Ilhéu de Fora; here grazing animals have never been introduced. Amongst the ninety species that make up the plant heritage of the Selvagens Islands, ten are endemic.
Because of the favourable nesting conditions for seabirds, these islands are also known as bird sanctuaries.
GARAJAU PARCIAL NATURE RESERVE
This reserve, created in 1986, is on the south coast of Madeira Island, at the extreme east of Funchal Bay. It is a marine park that includes a strip running from the high tide line and into the sea to a depth of 50 metres.
Amongst the fauna of this park are larger fish such as the (Epinephelus guaza) “mero” in Portuguese and also a variety of other coastal species. Groups of Atlantic manta rays (manta birostris) can be seen here every year. Their size and graceful movement has transformed the area into an international attraction.
Any fishing activity is forbidden inside the park. Navigation is also highly controlled. Only small boats are allowed to approach the beaches. There is infrastructure and support for scubadiving.
PONTA OF S. LOURENÇO NATURE RESERVE
At the east end of Madeira is the Ponta de S. Lourenço Nature Reserve, set up in 1982.
It has a particular fauna and flora, thanks to important local groups pratically confined to this area. It also has an observation post for environmental education.
ROCHA DO NAVIO NATURE RESERVE
This area falls under the administration of Santana, and was the last park to be created in 1997. It was established in response to demands from the local population and includes a strip of sea, a potential habitat for sea wolf and a small island on which one can see rare plants that inhabit the cliff habitats of Macaronesia.
There is open access by boat, but underwater fishing and the use of fishing nets are forbidden.
The “Rocha do Navio Nature Reserve” site has total area of 1710 hectares and total length of 6259 meters.
It is exclusively marine, including the islets of “Ilhéu da Rocha das Vinhas” and “Ilhéu da Viúva”. This Reserve is integrated in the Natura 2000 Network.
It is located on the north coast of Madeira Island, in the Municipality of Santana. The main access is made through the Belvedere of “Rocha do Navio”, along a path sculpted on the rock or by telepheric.
The name “Rocha do Navio” comes from the wreckage of a Dutch schooner in the 19th century, as a result of strong winds.
PORTO SANTO NETWORK OF PROTECTED MARINE AREAS
The Porto Santo Network of Protected Marine Areas comprises the areas of the six islets around the island of Porto Santo, namely, the islets of Cenouras, Baixo or Cal, Cima or Dragoeiros, also known nowadays as Farol, Fora or Rocha do Nordeste, Fonte da Areia and Ferro, and the marine area surrounding the islets of Cal and Cima, including the spot where the shipwreck of O Madeirense lies.
All surface areas of the six islets are a Special Conservation Area, part of the Natura 2000 network.
The islets, in spite of their inhospitable appearance, hold a natural heritage that demands conservation, for their scientific and natural important features, as well as, outstanding landscape.
The shoreline vegetation displays important examples of the coastal flora of Macaronesia.
They are also favoured locations for sea birds to nest.
There is abundant and varied sea fauna, in part due to the shipwreck of O Madeirense, which has become an excellent location for diving.
The Madeira Islands are an example of hotspot volcanism in an oceanic environment and arose from the action of two mantle plumes. One created Porto Santo during the Middle Miocene, around 14 million years ago (Mya), and later Madeira and the Desertas Islands during the Late Miocene, around 7 Mya. The other originated the Selvagens Islands during the Oligocene, around 28 Mya.
The island of Madeira rises up from a vast underwater plain, within the African Plate, forming a volcanic massif more than 5.5 km high, of which only 1/3 comes above the water.
The island evolved over successive stages of intense volcanic activity (early stage ≥ 7 Mya, middle stage 7 to 1.8 Mya and late stage < 1.8 Mya), separated by periods of very little activity or no activity at all. During these periods, erosion reduced the size of the volcanic structure, at times considerably. The erosion processes consisted mostly of fluvial erosion, marine abrasion (coastline retreat and the creation of cliffs), and gravity processes (landslips and landslides) that were triggered by the steep relief created by the previous processes. The periods of intense erosion carved valleys into the landscape and created uneven terrain that partially or totally destroyed the volcanic forms, while the products of the erosion were deposited on the underwater flanks of the great volcano or in the valleys. When activity started again, during the following volcanic period, it led to fossilisation of the sedimentary residue material and the eroded terrain. The most recent volcanic structure in the stratigraphy of the island of Madeira, which was formed until 6000-7000 years ago, represents the rejuvenation stage and is characterised by volcanism acting on an eroded topography, carved into the forms created during the previous stage. It is believed that Madeira is still in this stage of evolution, and volcanic activity is temporarily dormant. Although low, the risk of a volcanic eruption in Madeira is not non-existent.