Wildlife in The Canary Islands & Madeira

Evolution from oceanic seclusion The unique evolution of life in the Canary Islands and Madeira has created an exciting wildlife destination for an expedition cruise. From arid landscapes and looming jagged peaks to mist soaked forests and sandy shores, ecological niches abound making these islands the ideal home for all sorts of birds, lizards, bats and marine life.

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From dry and rocky to green and soggy

The Canary Island archipelago sits in the Atlantic Ocean around 60 miles from continental Africa at its closest point. With seven main islands and numerous islets the grouping sits just outside the tropics on the Gulf Stream, which brings cooler water from the north and creates a rich feeding ground for marine life. Having been formed by volcanic activity, altitude varies widely throughout the islands allowing for a range of ecosystems harbouring a plethora of biodiversity.

Over 250 miles to the north of the Canaries lies the Portuguese island of Madeira, along with its much smaller and very different companion Porto Santo, and a number of uninhabited islets. As part of an archipelago, Madeira is the protruding part of a huge shield volcano and is characterised by its lush woodlands, being especially known for its laurisilva evergreen forests which are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More than canaries

The Canary Islands are home to numerous and varied bird species and draw in twitchers from all over the world. Endemic species found here include the Laurel Forest Pigeon, the Tenerife Blue Chaffinch and the Houbara Bustard. Of course, there’s also the eponymous Atlantic Canary, which is yellow-green in colour and is actually named after the islands, rather than the other way round.

Birdlife is also prolific on Madeira, with the lush mantle of forest cover found in the north of the island providing habitat for numerous species. This includes the endemic Madeira Firecrest, which builds its nests from cobwebs and moss and lives mainly at altitudes of over 2000 ft. A bit lower down, in burrows on grassy ledges, lives the endangered Zino’s Petrel, the numbers of which are now beginning to recover following sustained conservation efforts.

Seas rich in life

The waters around the Macaronesian islands – which include Madeira and the Canaries – are high in biodiversity partly due to the Gulf Stream current. The cooler waters foster abundant zooplankton and phytoplankton production, which in turn provides the basis for a food chain that includes many species of shark, ray and turtle. Cetaceans can also be spotted in the seas around the islands, with short-finned pilot whales most common around the Canaries, while sperm whales are often seen around Madeira.

Biological treasure islands

The diversity of ecological niches has led to a profusion of lifeforms, many of them endemic. Numerous lizards can be found throughout the islands, including the Gran Canaria giant lizard – gallotia stehlini – which can live at varied altitudes ranging between sea level up to the rocky heights. Several other reptiles and frogs can be found thriving here, as well as various skinks and geckos, adding to the islands’ impressive level of biodiversity.

Busting some moves with the Canaries’ largest endemic bird

The more arid islands, such as Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, are where the Houbara Bustard can be found. Feeding on seeds, insects and small lizards, the Canaries’ largest endemic bird is known for its flamboyant mating dance. The male’s white crown feathers splay out wildly, giving it the appearance of a feather duster, and it jerks its head rapidly back and forth. At the same time, it rushes about in straight lines or circles in an attempt to impress nearby females.

Lady pods

Short-finned pilot whales are members of the oceanic dolphin family – which also includes orcas – and live in pods of up to 100 individuals. It’s been observed that groups around Tenerife are matriarchal, led by a ‘senior’ female individual. These matrilineal pods are usually a mother and her offspring, along with various other related females such as cousins, and contain between 10 and 30 members. Males, on the other hand, are more independent, and go from pod-to-pod pursuing mating opportunities.

Evolution in action

The Galapagos Islands may have Darwin’s famous finches, but the Canary Islands have their own version to demonstrate natural selection. On each of the islands can be found the African Blue Tit, and in each case these small yellow and blue birds have slightly different colourations and a subtly different song. Scientists hypothesise the evolution of these biometrical differences has been driven by local environmental factors – a process known as speciation.

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