Wildlife in Spain
Poisonous plants lurking in the average garden on the Costa Blanca
Bugs and creepy crawlies on the Costa Blanca
If your ideal retreat would be a traditional spanish finca set on a hillside overlooking the local village. The vineyards and fruit orchards stretching away into the distance, the only sounds the chirping of the cicadas. The Costa Blanca is for you.
But before you part with your savings on that dream cottage, read this article on your would-be neighbours. I have lived in the 'campo' (countryside), and I wasn't fazed by any of them, despite the fact that one night I was woken by a tarantula falling from the ceiling onto my face then scuttling away across my cheek and settling on the wall no more than 12 inches from my nose! I simply went out the following day and bought mosquito nets - they keep out more than flies.
The name tarantula comes from a real spider that is found in Spain, it lives mainly in an area around the town of Taranto. In fact the real tarantula (The European Wolf Spider, Lycosa Tarantula) is distantly related to the other spiders that share its name. The real tarantula is a small slightly hairy spider about 2 inches or 5cm across. It is not dangerous to humans!
The people of the Spanish town of Taranto, believed that if they were bitten by they spider that they called tarantula and if the bite was not treated quickly, that they would die. The only way to survive it's bite, they believed, was to do a dance called the Tarantella. This involved very fast spinning and jumping until they could dance no more and fell to the ground exhausted. This the locals believed was the only cure.
The real Tarantula of course is, like the other spiders wrongly named after it, are not really dangerous to most humans. You may feel a little sick if you have been bitten by a tarantula, but normally that is all. Nowadays, all large hairy spiders have been given the name tarantula, even though many are only very distantly related to the real tarantula. Tarantulas are often called bird eating spiders, very few actually eat birds, those that do usually raid nests and take the young chicks, most however, like our native spiders only eat insects.
Nick Lloyd is a frustrated writer and geographer. He has just started a weblog on natural history, environment, geography, and climate in Spain called 'Iberia: natural history and environment'. So far there are articles on fire, wind farms, the history of malaria in Spain and the strange origins of the Iberian Lynx and Imperial Eagle. Read on for more info on bugs, creepy crawlies and assorted wildlife to be found in the average country garden in Spain.
"When I was eight years old I was bitten by an adder in a fern forest in Norfolk, England. Ever since I have been fascinated by the dangers lurking in the woods, rocks and the sea. And it’s summer again, which is when most of us get bitten and stung, so here’s a compendium of beasties in Spain out there wanting a piece of us.
Attacks by wolves and bears are of course extremely rare, though there was a case in May this year of a man who was seriously injured by a bear in Palencia. He was out mushroom picking and stumbled upon a female with its cubs. After being battered and left for dead, the man managed to save himself by tying a tourniquet above a deep gash in his leg.
King Favila of Asturias, son of the legendary King Pelayo, was allegedly killed by a bear in Covadonga. The historical symbolism was not lost on Spanish republicans this year, when they paid homage to the ‘regicide bear’ in a celebration held on the day of Felipe’s and Leticia’s bash, proclaiming: ‘If it is true that Covadonga and Pelayo are the cradle and the base of the current Spanish monarchy, as the Asturian monarchical tradition has it, then it must be no less true that Favila and the regicide bear are the starting point of Spanish republicanism”. The act concluded by declaring the bear, “the first Spanish republican”.
I imagine the number of feral dogs roaming the Spanish countryside must be responsible for a considerable number of attacks. According to one study, an incredible 87,000 (eighty-seven thousand) dogs were abandoned in 2003 in Spain. Apart from the evident cruelty to the dogs themselves, the presence of so many half-starved animals is a serious public health problem, and a threat to wildlife. Many of the sheep deaths blamed on wolves in northern Spain are in fact committed by packs of wild dogs.
There are a total of 13 snakes present in Spain of which five are venomous. These are:
Seoane's viper (Vipera seoanei - víbora de Seoane)
Asp viper (Vipera aspis - víbora áspid)
Snub-nosed or Lataste's viper (Viborade lataste - vibora hocicuda)
False smooth snake (Macroprotodon cucullatus - culebra de cogulla)
Montpellier Snake (Malpolon monspessulanus - culebra bastarda or de Montpellier)
Seoane's viper lives in Galicia, León, the Cantabrian coastal strip (Cornisa Cantábrica) and the Basque Country. Confusingly some authors class Seoane's viper as a subspecies of the common viper or adder (Vipera berus - víbora europea) and, more confusingly still, some experts believe both exist in northern Spain.
By far the commonest of the vipers, Lataste's viper, is present throughout the rest of the Peninsula, though nowhere is it common. It is grey, short (around 50cm) and is distinguished by its triangular head and the zigzag pattern on its back. It lives in dry, rocky areas, away from humans and is timid, but don’t go sticking your hands in holes and crevices and be careful when collecting firewood as viper bites can be fatal.
The other two snakes are not so dangerous, but watch out for the 2-metre long Montpellier snake. It is blue with a white underbelly -don't go picking one up to check- and has prominent ridges over the eyes. However, the position of its venom fangs means that you would be unlucky to have poison injected into you, and if you are, its venom is much weaker then the vipers.
If you are bitten by a snake, remain calm and seek medical attention immediately. Bites only occur in the spring and summer as snakes hibernate. Of the estimated 50 snakebite deaths a year in Europe, only 3-6 occur in Spain, so don’t worry too much. More people die from bee and wasp stings. The Canaries are snake-free, and only the milder False smooth snake is found in the Balearics, probably introduced there by the Romans.
The black widow (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) is the most dangerous spider in Spain and gives a medically-complex and painful bite though it is not fatal. They are commonest in Valencia and Andalucía, and I believe they are a problem in the greenhouse estates of Almeria. Tarantulas are found in arid zones such as Los Monegros in Aragon. However, you’ll be extremely unlucky to be bitten as they are rare (and protected). Their bite is quite painful but not dangerous. Finally, the Mediterranean recluse spider (Loxosceles rufescens), though less toxic than its African recluse cousins, can give a painful nip.
The commonest scorpion in Spain is the Mediterranean scorpion (Buthus occitanus, escorpión amarillo or just alacrán) and though its North African cousin is more dangerous, it will still give you an extremely nasty sting. You might want to think about wearing boots and thick socks if you plan to hike in dry rocky areas (most of wild Spain) as they are by no means rare. The female will make a meal out of the male if food is short on the ground. The European black scorpion is also present in Spain, preferring more northerly and wetter areas. It’s sting is short-lived. Scorpions have a bent for resting in your shoes, so be careful.
As every Spanish child knows, don’t even think about handling the hairy caterpillars of the pine processionary moth (procesionarias in Spanish). If they are touched, their hairs release an extremely nasty allergic skin reaction. Children have been known to go temporarily blind from rubbing their eyes after picking them up. They live in easily identifiable silvery nests in pine trees throughout Mediterranean Spain and get their name from their habit of forming head-to-tail trails as they move across land.
As everywhere else in Europe there is also the usual litany of smaller creatures hungry for a meal such as fleas (pulgas), ticks (garrapatas), bedbugs (chinches) and lice (piojos). Evidently also common are wasps (avispas), bees (abejas), bumblebees (abejorros) and horse flies (tábanos). In Spain there is supposed to be only one species of poisonous ant (Myrmica rubra laevinoides - hormiga roja chica), although its bite is not serious. However, last year in Barcelona there was an outbreak of stinging ants and they weren’t red. I was stung by one last night in the bathroom so they’re back. Mosquitoes are no longer malarial in Spain (see note).
There is also something hideously common called a Megarian Banded Centipede (Scolopendra cingulata – escolopendra). It’s up to 9cm long and will give you a very nasty sting.
If you’re still alive after all that, you might fancy a swim, but beware.
Despite the huge numbers of people bathing in the Spanish Mediterranean, reports of dangerous sharks (tiburones) are rare to say to the least. A scuba diver was killed by a Great White Shark in Italian waters in 1989, and nearer home another Great White was washed up dead at Tossa de Mar in Catalonia in 1985. There are, however, two recorded shark attacks in Spain in the twentieth century. The first one was on a Spanish windsurfer in 1986 who was bitten in the leg and seriously injured by what is thought to be a Great White (tiburón blanco or jaquetón -Carcharodon carcharias). He later had to have a leg amputated. In 1993, a second attack took place on a swimmer by a “2-metre long, small and slender shark”. Identification is unsure. The man lost several toes in one foot. So a tiny though real risk does exist.
Several species of rays (rayas) are found in Spanish waters, in shallow sandy sea beds. Although not aggressive, if aggrieved, they can lash out with their sting-laden tail, resulting in lacerations, local irritation and risk of infection.
A much more common and serious danger are the weever fish which bury themselves in the sand and wait for smaller fish to pounce on as they swim by. If trod on they will erect their poison-laden dorsal fin in defence. The venom can cause intense pain, and deaths have even been recorded. Soaking in hot water removes the toxicity of the venom. Iberian weevers include: the Lesser Weever (salvariego - Echiichthys vipera), the Greater weever, (pez escorpión - Trachinus draco) and the Spotted weever (pez araña - Trachinus araneus). People are stung every year in Spain. Finally, the spiny fins of various scorpionfish, which tend to hide amongst the rocks including the Large-scaled scorpionfish (cabracho - Scorpaena scrofa), also give painful though generally less serious stings when stepped on.
As everywhere the most persistent danger are jellyfish (medusas). They tend to occur in swarms and so are easily visible and, in theory avoided. A combination of factors determines the concentrations of jellyfish in a given year. A warm and dry winter and spring inland will normally lead to a high build-up of jellyfish at sea. This seemingly unconnected chain of events is because the cold, less salty water of the coast acts as a barrier to jellyfish. They normally live between 20 and 40 miles from the coast where the water is warmer and saltier. However, when rain-fed freshwater river input is lower, salinity increases, allowing the jellies in. Other factors include winds and sea currents. Jellyfish just drift in the currents like buoys. Hot summer weather certainly also brings them in, which also attracts us in our millions, and so sting numbers increase dramatically. Jellyfish can also swarm in the winter but nobody notices.
Given the importance of beaches to the Spanish economy, jellyfish swarms are regularly reported in the local press in summer. Despite these warnings, hundreds of people are stung every day up and down the Spanish Mediterranean. 11,571 people were attended by health authorities last year in Valencia alone. Probably the commonest jellyfish in the Spanish Mediterranean is a nasty little one called the Sea nettle or Mauve stinger (‘medusa luminiscente’ Pelagia noctiluca). It swarms can lead to beaches being closed. Also beware of the Compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella), identified by a ring of brown dots around a white saucer-shaped body, as it gives a potent sting which can produce extremely painful, long lasting weals. More worryingly, this year, dozens of Portuguese Man-o-war (Carabela portuguesa - Physalia physalis) were detected off the Asturian coast among swarms of harmless Velella velella. The purple Man-o-war is not a true jellyfish, but a colony of hydrozoan polyps. It can in extreme cases provoke a cardiac arrest and death in particularly sensitive persons.
Spanish sea urchins (erizos de mar) are not poisonous, though if you tread on them their spikes can stick into your foot and get infected.
There is also a whole host of underwater things that you are only likely to meet if you go scuba diving, which I don’t. Remember by far the biggest cause of death in the sea is drowning."
Note: This article was published with the kind permission of the author. For more articles, including one on malaria in Spain, follow this link. http://personal.telefonica.terra.es/web/iberianature/ or read other articles from Wild Spain at http://www.wild-spain.com.