Madeira evergreen forests

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The Madeira archipelago supports remnants of a type of laurel forest that was once widespread throughout southern Europe and northwestern Africa. The flora and fauna of this relict forest is quite unique; it has many endemic species including the Madeiran long-toed wood pigeon (Columba trocaz) and Zino's petrel (Pterodroma madeira). Having suffered extensive clearance after the islands were settled, Madeira’s native vegetation is currently threatened by invasive species, mismanagement of pastures and grazing, and tourism development.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    300 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
Madeira is an archipelago of 798 km2 in the Atlantic Ocean, about 560 km from Morocco and 978 km from Lisbon. Madeira, the largest island, and Porto Santo are inhabited, with an estimated population of about 290,000 inhabitants. The Desertas and Selvagens are uninhabited. Madeira is the largest and highest island (Pico Ruivo, 1,861 m). It has a sharp altitudinal and north-south climatic gradient. The average annual temperature ranges between 15-20ºC, and annual precipitation ranges from 250 to 750 mm. Although a volcanic archipelago of Tertiary origin, there has been no recent volcanic activity at Madeira. Basalt and volcanic ash predominates, and limestone rocks of marine origin are abundant in certain areas. The landform is quite complex, characterized by deep ravines and gorges. Inaccessible high cliffs and abundant caves define the coastline.

The Macaronesian subtropical mountain moist forest that characterizes Madeira and the Canary archipelagos has been termed "laurisilva". Laurisilva is considered a Tertiary relict vegetation type, having once extended across southern Europe and northwest Africa. The laurisilva, which used to cover most of Madeira Island, persists as a relict forest covering 16% of the islands. This laurel forest type occurs at altitudes of 300 to 1,300 meters on north-facing slopes, mainly in deep gorges or inaccessible inland valleys. The Madeiran laurisilva is the most extensive and well-preserved stand, spreading over 14,953 ha. It is completely enclosed within the boundaries of the Madeira Natural Park.

This unique subtropical humid forest (very similar to permanent mountain cloud forest) constitutes an extremely important ecosystem type that is rare worldwide. Tall tree species compose the canopy; most belong to the Lauraceae family (Apollonias barbujana, Laurus azorica, Ocotea foetans, and Persea indica) and are endemic to Macaronesia. Two main types are found: dry laurisliva on south-facing slopes, characterized by Apollonias barbujana, Visnea mocarena, and Picconia excelsa, and moist laurisilva on north-facing slopes and gorges, where Laurus azorica, Ocotea foetans and Persea indica predominate. The shrub and herb layers are species-rich and include a significant number of endemics. Bryophyte and lichen communities, especially epiphytes, are highly diverse as well.

Biodiversity Features
More than half of Macaronesian flora consists of Mediterranean species. Madeira’s flora comprises about 1,226 species of vascular plants (Sunding 1979), including two endemic genera (Chamaemeles and Musschia) and over 120 Macaronesian endemic species (Hansen 1969; Sunding 1979). Sixty-six of these are strictly endemic to Madeira, for example, Polysticum maderensis, Cerastium vagans, Armeria maderensis, Goodyera Macrophylla Viola paradoxa, Crambe fruticosa, Matthiola maderensis, Sinapidendron angustifolium, Saxifraga maderensis, Sorbus maderensis, Cytisus maderensis, Senecio maderensis, Phalaris maderensis, Pittosporum coriaceum, and Musschia wollastonii.

There are 11 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) within the archipelago. Two-hundred ninety-five bird species and subspecies have been recorded from the archipelago 42 of these breed here (Zino et al. 1995). Two birds are endemic to Madeira, Zino's petrel (Pterodroma madeira) and Trocaz pigeon or long-toed wood pigeon (Columba trocaz). Both species, as well as Fea's petrel (Pterodroma feae), are considered globally threatened. In addition to supporting Columba trocaz, several forest areas are also very important for a number of Madeiran subspecies, notably the birds of prey and passerines living within the forest canopy such Madeira chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs maderensis) and Madeira firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus maderensis).

More than 500 endemic invertebrates also form part of the laurisilva, including many molluscs, insects, and spiders. The long-toed wood pigeon, also called "Pombo Trocaz", is well known as an endemic species, along with two rare species of bat and a few near endemics that occur on both Madeira and the Canary Islands.

Current Status
The ecoregion’s native laurisilva forests have been greatly reduced in extent and continue to recover from abuse, currently covering about 16 % of Madeira. Native timber was heavily exploited over long period of time, beginning shortly after colonization in the 15th century (J.R. Press 1994). Clearance for agriculture, and to a lesser extent, for road building and urbanization, has also contributed to reduction of the natural vegetation cover. Reforestations with non-native species, Pinus pinaster and Eucalyptus globulus, are widespread at mid-altitudes. When sugar cane was a major crop, timber was used to make the sugar mills. Given the steep topography of Madeira, erosion has become a serious problem in the south of the island, where logging and overgrazing has intensively destroyed vegetation cover.

All the Madeira Laurisilva is completely included within the boundaries of the Madeira Natural Park. It also constitutes a Special Zone for Protection within the European Bird Directive and a Site of Communitary Interest within the Habitats Directive. Since 1992 it is declared as a European Council Biogenetic Reserve, and it is also part of the Natural World Heritage List of UNESCO since 1999.

  Area Name PA size (ha)
and IUCN Cat.
Vale da Ribeira da Janela, Fanal and Ribeira Funda   Natural Park, Biogenetic Reserve
Rabacas and Folhadal and Tis Amarelos   Natural Park
Montado do Pesegueiros   Natural Park
Caldeirao Verde, Moquinhas, Pico Casado   Natural Park, Biogenetic Reserve
Montado de Areeiro, Sabugal, Faja da Nogueira, Piquetes and Cidrao   Natural Park, Biogenetic Reserve
Ponta da Sao Lourenco   Natural Park
Deserta Islands   Natural Park, Biogenetic Reserve
Selagem Islands   Natural Park

Types and Severity of Threats
Invasive species constitute an important threat, mainly at the lowest altitudes of laurisilva distribution, where species of Acacia, Hedychium gardnerianum and Pittosporum undulatum, Ailanthus altissima, and Acer pseudoplatanus are widely distributed. Species such as the Kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) prevent the natural expansion of laurisilva on abandoned rural land. Eradication programs are currently underway. Mismanagement of pastures and grazing, as well as tourism development –mainly urban development - considerably threaten the island vegetation. Introduced herbivores (goats, sheep and rabbits) constitute a major threat to the Madeira natural vegetation while cats and rats present a major threat to the Madeiran avifauna. A recent threat to the laurisilva is the black rat (Rattus rattus), a voracious species adapted to climb trees and feed on wild fruits.

The increasing number of visitors to Madeira’s protected areas increases human pressure on fragile habitats. Regulations should be established to control the visitor influx. (Zino et al. 2000).

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion encompasses the islands of Madeira, Porto Santo, the Desertas and Salvagens Islands. Although the flora and fauna is similar to that of the Canary Islands, there are narrow endemics of both plants and birds found only in one or the other island system. The ecoregion is considered a single Center of Plant Diversity (Davis et al. 1994) and, together with the Canary Islands, an Endemic Bird Area (Stattersfield et al. 1998).

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Hernandez, M., Martin, A., and Nogales, M. 1999. Breeding success and predation on artificial nests of the endemic pigeons Bolle´s Laurel Pigeon, Columba bollii, and White-tailed Pigeon, Columba junoniae in the Laurel forest of Tenerife (Canary Islands) Ibis 141:52-59.

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Oliveira, P. and Heredia 1996. Action plan for the Madeira Laurel Pigeon, Columba trocaz. In B. Heredia, L. Rose, and M. Painter (Eds. Globally threatened birds in Europe. Action plans. Council of Europe Publishing. pp. 303-309.

Oliveira, P. and M. Jones. 1995. Population numbers, habitat preferences and the impact of the Long-toed Pigeon, Columba trocaz, on agriculture. Boletim do Museu Municipal do Funchal. vol. 4. pp. 531-542.

Oliveira, P., M. Jones, D. Caires, and D. Menezes. In press. The present status of the Madeira Laurel Pigeon: A survey using distance sampling. Bird Conservation International.

Oliveira, P., P. Moniz, and J. Rodrigues. 1999. A gestão e conservação das aves da Madeira. Parque Natural da Madeira. Funchal.

Pieper, H. 1985. The fossil land birds of Madeira and Porto Santo. Bocagiana 88:1-6

Quammen, D. 1996. The song of the Dodo. Island Biogeography in an age of Extinctions. Pimlico. Londres.

Stattersfield, A., M. Crosby, A. Long, and D. Wege. 1998. Endemic Bird Areas of the World. Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation. Birdlife Conservation, Series Nº 7. Cambridge.

Zino, F., and P.A. Zino. 1986. An account of the habitat, feeding habits, density, breeding and need of protection of the Long-toed Pigeon, Columba trocaz. Bocagiana 97:1-16.

Zino, F., and M. Biscoito. 1993. Interrelation of food availability and reproduction in Columba trocaz. Abstracts of First symposium on Fauna e Flora of the Atlantic Islands. Funchal.

Prepared by: Pedro Regato
Reviewed by: Leann Trowbridge