The biological diversity that exists in the Archipelago of Madeira is an invaluable heritage of enormous scientific and technological interest due to the existence of numerous endemic species of flora and fauna. The rarity of Madeira’s species is curiously referred to more than thirty times in the “Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, where he states that the island of Madeira has characteristics that distinguish it as a unique place on Earth. It is the largest and most well preserved Laurisilva patch of Macaronesia. Madeira’s Natural Heritage spreads accross 2/3 of the territory where it has clearly defined integral natural reserves, protected landscapes and recreational areas.
Madeira Archipelago’s fauna is characterized by numerous indigenous land and marine species. Invertebrates and birds are the main highlight since they are in larger number amongst endemic and macaronesian species. The endemic and macaronesian ornithological species of major interest are the trocaz pigeon, the chaffinch, the Madeira Firecrest, nun-da-Madeira and the FEA’s petrel. Concerning reptiles there is the lizard and Gecko and amongst mammals there is the Sea Wolf and bats. Insects represent 75% of all animal species on the Archipelago, 20% of which are endemic. Isolated to an uninhabited island is a rare and unique specie of Tarantula known as “The Black widow” whose body measures 4,5cm. There are no animal species considered dangerous to humans on any of the inhabited islands.
Madeira’s sea fauna is known for its vast specific diversity essentially influenced by its geographic and climatic characteristics. There are over 500 species of fish such as Sparisoma cretense, Sarpa salpa, Diplodus sp and Chromis limbata.It is also possible to observe several species of turtles and sea mammals such as striped dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba and the sea lion Monachus monachus which is an emblematic specie from the Desert Islands. There are no dangerous animals on any of the islands.
The Laurisilva forest spreads accross roughly 22% of the area of the island of Madeira predominantly on the north side between the 300 and 1300 metre level. The island of Madeira is considered the largest and most well preserved region of Laurisilva forest in the world. Its origins date back to the third age, when the laurissilva forest covered a vast area of the Mediterranean basin. It consists of Heathers and other pre-Alpine species which ensure the stability of the soil and the water supply to the population of the entire island. Nowadays this forest is considered to be the largest area of laurissilva in better condition and number of species worldwide, thus being considered as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999 and in 2010 and having won the title “new seven wonders of the world – Portugal”. The Laurisilva forest is a forest where numerous plant and animal species cohabit in close interdependence with each other and with the environment. In this complex interdependence four Lauraceae are worthy of mention: Madeira Laurel Ocotea foetens, Bay Tree Laurus novocanariensis,Madeira mahogany Persea indica and Canary laurel Apollonias barbujana together with an entire multiform set of other trees, shrubs, ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens, mushrooms and other fungi which in association with a unique fauna provides extraordinary value. This vegetal-rich paradise in shades of green is the product of a stratified space organization that in addition to the breathtaking beauty reveals all the dynamism that characterizes balanced life ecosystems.
The introduced forest, represents about 18% of the area of the island of Madeira and is predominantly found on the southern side of the island. This type of forest is essentially pines, eucalyptus’, Acacias, chestnuts, walnut trees among others, with the chestnut and Walnut perfectly naturalized on the island of Madeira.
Madeira has four levels of indigenous vegetation. From 0 up to the 300meter level where the climate tends to be warmer and drier there is an indigenous vegetation that consists of various shrubs, succulents, herbaceous plants and left-overs of an arid climate micro-forest which has been almost completely substituted by agricultural fields and urban areas where theSmooth spear leaved spurge Euphorbia piscatorial and the Pride of Madeira Echium nervosum used to be abundant.
Between the 300 and 600meter level several exotic forest species were introduced such as the pine tree, cryptomeria, pseudotsuga, chestnut tree, Oak tree, Mimosas and Eucalyptus. It is a cool and humid region that before the colonization of the island was covered by Canary Laurel Apollunias barbujana, Wax myrtle Myrica faya and endemin Canary holly Ilex canariensis. There is still significative presence of these species on the north side of the island and in specific spots on the south facing side.
Above the 600 meter level up to 1300meters where humidity is even higher exhuberant populations of laurissilva can be found where laurissilva species are significantly bigger and older. Amongst the bigger species it is possible to find PicconiaPicconia excelsa, Climbing butchers broom Semele androgyna and at ground level in the shade and humidity many kinds of ferns. In the open where there is more light small plants and shrubs are more dominant such as the mountain Pride of Madeira, Madeiran digitalis, goldem muschia and Margarida. The most attractive herbaceous flowers are the Dactyloriza foliosa, Madeira Stork’s Bill Geranium Geranium maderensis.