Madeira is often described as a floating garden, a delicate green gem set in the azure blue frame that is the Atlantic ocean, and this certainly is how our island paradise looks and feels to us, even though we may be a bit more interested in the creatures that live under this blue surface. It is always important to appreciate the big picture, if you focus to much on one thing, you might miss out.
So, this is the story of Madeira, and it doesn’t start with flowers and dolphins, it starts with a volcanic activity, a large shield volcano leaking magma along an oceanic fault line created a large underwater mountain 6 km from the original sea floor some 5 million years ago. At first an active volcano is quite barren. As it cooled down there was the potential for life, but since it is so far from the mainland, there’s not a lot of life to be found. Certainly, there were fish and other marine animals that could use the intertidal and benthic areas, to hide, bread or lay eggs in. But the island itself was hard unforgiving rock.
Not many species can live on rock, usually lichen are the first species to arrive since they can grow where nothing else can, then over time, as the rock weathers down, small plant seeds may drift in the water or wind, find a little soil and may start to grow. This is a slow process, but as more plants grew, the broken rock and dead biomass of plants made more soil, and with ample nutrients in this soil, and sunlight to spare on Madeira, the island became greener.
And as these plants grew more and more, the evolved, since there were no grazers, no animals except for insect and birds that can fly to an island, life was quite different from the mainland, and the plants started to adapt to this island lifestyle. This process of isolation and evolution creates new endemic species, plants that are only seen on Madeira, because they evolved specially to live here. For biologists, islands like this are a treasure trove of information, with many new things to discover.
So even as our eyes are normally fixed on the horizon, it might be worthwhile to look a bit closer sometimes and see what beauty is right under our nose.
By Scott Dorssers