Selvagens

The Savage Islands are located at 170 km north of Punta de Anaga, in Tenerife, and almost 290 km south-southeast of São Lourenço, in Madeira. This archipelago comprises three small islands, Selvagem Grande, Selvagem Pequena and Ilhéu de Fora, as well as several islets, and is surrounded by reefs that have been the cause of many a shipwreck throughout history. Selvagem Grande is the easternmost island and is located at 18 km north-northeast of the other two.

This archipielago belongs to Portugal and it is a Natural Reserve in the Autonomous Region of Madeira.

The official discovery of the archipelago is attributed to Portuguese navigator Diogo Gomes in 1460, on his return voyage from an expedition to Guinea. Gomes claimed the tiny island group in the name of the Portuguese Crown and offered the following brief description: “the island called Selvagem is barren; no person lives there. It has no trees and no running waterˮ. In fact the existence of the archipelago had been known for quite some time and was included in the map drawn up by the Pizzigani brothers in 1367, but no one had yet claimed ownership. In 1971 the islands were declared a Nature Reserve and are currently managed by the regional government of Madeira (Portugal).

The Savage Islands have a subtropical maritime climate, similar to that of the Canaries. Their geographical location exposes them to the cold waters of the Gulf Stream and the trade winds that blow in from the Azores. Because the islands are low-lying, the trade winds cause very little precipitation. However, the combined action of the wind and the cold waters that surround the islands helps keep temperatures cool for most of the year. The Atlantic squalls that gust in from the North and West, bringing torrential rains and electric storms, generally last for just a few hours. Occasionally, masses of hot dry air carrying Saharan dust in suspension totally engulf the islands.

The flora of the Savage Islands comprises around 60 species of vascular plants, of which nine (15% of the total) are considered endemic to the archipelago, another nine (15%) are endemic to Macaronesia and the rest are originally Mediterranean (60%) or subcosmopolitan (10%). The high number of native plants in an archipelago whose surface area is less than 5 km2is particularly striking. What is more, all these species, except the endemics, also grow in the Canaries. In addition, the near 40 species of lichens and 10 bryophytes recorded to date are shared with the Canaries.

Many seabirds nest in these islands, particularly in spring and summer. Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris diomedea borealis) is the most abundant, forming large colonies (over 20 000 pairs) on coastal cliffs and rocky outcrops of the upper plain of Selvagem Grande. Also important are the colonies of white-faced storm petrel (Pelagodroma marina hypoleuca), a nocturnal pelagic bird that builds its nest by digging tunnels in the clayey soils of the high tableland of Selvagem Grande and in the sandy soils of Selvagem Pequena and Ilhéu de Fora. Other colonies are smaller and include those of the Caspian gull (Larus cachinnans), little shearwater (Puffinus assimilis), Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulweria) and Madeira storm petrel (Oceanodroma castro).

Two subspecies of endemic reptiles inhabit the Savage Islands: a lizard (Teira dugesii selvagensis), smaller than the nominate species that lives on Madeira, and a gecko (Tarentola boettgeri bischoffi), closely related to the geckos of Gran Canaria and El Hierro. Terrestrial invertebrates include over a hundred recorded species of insects, mostly coleopterans, of which 20% are native to the archipelago. There are also more than 30 species of spiders, including the endemic pseudoscorpion, Garypus saxicola salvajensis, while the only known species of terrestrial mollusc (Theba macandreweana) is very abundant and endemic to these islands.

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