Carnivorous Mammals

All of the Algarve’s ten species of mammalian land predators (carnivores) are found in the south west. In fact, the area holds some important populations of these elusive but exciting creatures. The familiar Red Fox Vulpes vulpes is found everywhere.

The only other carnivore that is legal tender for hunters is the common and widespread Egyptian Mongoose Herpestes ichneumon. Within Europe, this species, thought to have been introduced by the Romans or Moors, is restricted mainly to southern Iberia. It is famous for its skill in catching snakes and its resistance to venom. This mongoose also takes a wide range of other prey and will even sit in the middle of a field munching on melons, hence its Spanish name, Meloncillo.

A relative of the mongoose, and similarly considered part of Iberian wild fauna, the Genet Genetta genetta, introduced by the Moors, is relatively common, preferring more natural wooded habitats. Somewhat catlike in appearance, with a length of around 50 cm, and possessing an equally long tail, it is tawny-yellow with dark brown blotches that merge to form longitudinal stripes. The well-known Badger Meles meles is also present, preferring areas with easily excavated soil in which to dig its den or sett.

The charismatic Otter Lutra lutra can be found in many waterways in the area. Well known for eating fish, here they have a particular fondness for the abundant crayfish, often eating large quantities. Surprisingly, it is fairly common, and a few even inhabit the marine environment of the Costa Vicentina, only seeking freshwater occasionally to wash salt off their thick water-repellent coats. 

Beech Martens Mustela foina are like a larger version of their more familiar cousin, the Weasel Mustela nivalis, but with a long bushy rufous tail. Both are relatively common in woods, orchards, farmland and in country gardens, preying mainly on rodents. Another member of the same family, the handsome Western Polecat Mustela putorius is more scarce and only found in really wild habitats close to waterlines, far from human habitation.

Iberian Lynx

The most threatened carnivore in Europe, and the most endangered wild cat in the world, the Iberian or Pardel Lynx Lynx pardina (pardina = of a leopard) is present here in one of its last remaining enclaves in Portugal. This is a beautiful large cat with long ear tufts, bushy cheeks and beard, having a yellowish-brown coat with small dark spots. Measuring around 70 cm at the shoulder and one metre long, not including its characteristic short tail. Its distribution is extremely fragmented, and is reduced to five unconnected areas in the Algarve. Its most important niche is situated to the north of AlmaVerde in the nearby Serra do Espinhaço de Cão and the adjoining coastal gullies, where most of the estimated 25 remaining individuals eke out a precarious existence. Severely threatened with extinction, this fabulous creature has recently become a target for various conservation initiatives. Cats appear to have an extraordinary ability to maintain healthy small populations in the face of inter-familial breeding, and so it is hoped that the recent surge in protection measures will result in the survival and ultimately, in an increase in numbers of this species. 

Note: If you should be so fortunate as to see, dead or alive, a Pardel Lynx, you are strongly urged to record the location and date and to report the sighting to the Costa Vicentina’s Algarve headquarters in Aljezur, Tel: 282-998673. All sightings contribute to the knowledge and therefore the conservation of this critically endangered large cat.

The Wildcat Felis sylvestris is not so rare, but still very scarce and similarly confined to the wilder hilly natural habitats. The wildcat resembles a large, robust version of the domestic tabby cat, with a body length up to 68 cm, and with a proportionately wider head, amber eyes and a pink nose. Its coat, unlike its tamed relation, has no blotchy markings, only vertical stripes and a distinctively large, black-tipped, bushy tail with three to five rings.

Non-carnivorous Mammals

This large group is also well represented in the south west Algarve. The Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus although common in many areas, is sadly never abundant nowadays. Myxamatosis, other diseases and over-hunting are apparently the main causes for their considerable regression in recent decades in much of Europe. It is believed that the general demise of their natural predators, both mammalian and avian, is the main factor causing unhealthy rabbit populations. In an Algarve context, creatures like the Pardel Lynx, Wildcat, Western Polecat and Bonelli’s Eagle are nature’s way of eliminating the weaker, diseased, or older, non-reproductive individuals. 

Until recently considered a race of the European Brown Hare, but now considered a separate species, the Iberian Hare Lepus granatensis, is also hunted, but still common in the more open areas of the south west. Hares do not seem to be as affected by the problems that plague the rabbit.

The Wild Boar Sus scrofa is often abundant, especially in cork oak woodlands and surrounding farmland. Its nocturnal habits lead to its being overlooked, except perhaps by enterprising local restauranteurs. The well-known Western Hedgehog Erinaceus concolor is also very common and found in most habitats. 

The Iberian Mole Talpa occidentalis recently classified as a separate species from the two other European moles, has a patchy distribution but, like its counterparts, is considered a pest in some areas. 

Three species of voles are present in the southwest Algarve, the largest being the Southern Water Vole Arvicola sapidus. As its name suggests, this species is confined to areas of freshwater. The much rarer, smaller Cabrera´s Vole Microtus cabrerae, is an Iberian endemic and, although not strictly aquatic, is found invariably in areas close to water. The Mediterranean Pine Vole Pitymys duodecimcostatus is very common in farmland, causing problems for farmers, as this species consumes large amounts of cereals and is especially fond of beans.

Two species of shrew inhabit the region, both are abundant in undisturbed undergrowth and, to the initiated, easily detected by their frequent vocalisations, a very high-pitched squeaking. The Greater White-toothed Shrew Crocidura russula is a tiny mouse-like (but completely unrelated) creature with an elongated muzzle typical of members of this charismatic family. Its much smaller relative, the minute Pygmy White-toothed Shrew Suncus etruscus, is the smallest mammal in the world. A fully-grown adult is the size of an average grape (35 to 52 mm) and weighs in at a diminutive 1.5 to 2.5 grams.

Apart from the practically cosmopolitan Black Rat Rattus rattus, Brown Rat Rattus norvegicus and the House Mouse Mus musculus, which are nearly always associated with buildings, the much more attractive Wood Mouse Apodemus sylvaticus, and the Algerian Mouse Mus spretus are countryside rodents. Both avoid human habitation and are common throughout the area.

The south western Algarve is particularly important for bats, supporting no less than twelve species of this notoriously difficult to identify family. All are strictly protected by law and most have the unenviable status of endangered, with some threatened with imminent extinction. Among the most notable species are the Greater Noctule Nyctalus lasiopterus, the largest bat in Europe, with a wingspan of up to 46 cm, and very rare through its restricted range. Other very large bats include the Greater Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus ferrumequinum, which has declined by 90% in the last decades over much of its range, but still holds out in the area. Recently discovered locally is the Mehely´s Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus mehelyi. This species prefers limestone areas, hunting low over the ground with a slow-motion, very skillful flight.

Last but not least is the charming Garden Dormouse Eliomys quercinus. A rare species in Portugal, found only in seven of the 50 X 50 km quadrants used in the recently completed comprehensive Portuguese mammal atlas. In the south west Algarve it is not uncommonly found in oak and pine woodlands, orchards and even gardens. It is largely nocturnal, but often still active in the first hour or two after dawn.

Marine Mammals

Dolphins are seen habitually from anywhere around the south western coastline. Of these, the Common or Fraser’s Dolphin Delphinus delphis is the most abundant of the reliably recorded dolphin species in the seas around the area. This attractive species, with its grey, black and white stripey markings and yellow flanks, has a major breeding colony close to Cape St. Vincent. They can often be seen in their hundreds from the lighthouse, especially if one scans with binoculars. The much larger Risso’s Dolphin Grampus griseus can also be seen from here, often passing very close to the cliffs in small groups, especially in the autumn. This very beautiful cetacean is almost white, with peculiar noseless baby-like facial features. The well-known Bottle-nosed Dolphin Tursiops truncatus is also seen with regularity, but usually only observed from boats offshore, as is the little recorded Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba. The Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melaena is present in these waters, and is one of the most commonly seen cetaceans after the Common Dolphin. Killer Whales Orcinus orca too, occur and, on a recent pelagic trip for seabirds, two adults displayed their customary curiosity, approaching within a few metres of the vessel.

Large whales have been seen from the shore. However, due to identification problems, lack of research and rarity of sightings, little is known about the species involved. The waters off the south western Algarve are directly on the migration route of a number of large whales (including the Blue Whale, the world’s largest living creature), and experts believe that they are probably more regular visitors than existing observations reveal.

Note: It is urged that all who support the conservation of marine mammals avoid the tourist-oriented dolphin-watching trips that have recently become very popular in the Algarve. These businesses make no contribution to the much-needed study and conservation of the dolphins. They may indeed be causing serious problems, as dolphins are territorial animals and can undergo great stress when their breeding grounds are disturbed. As yet, there is no legislation applicable to Portuguese waters regarding "dolphin tourism”. It is hoped that laws will soon be introduced to obligate comprehensive monitoring by marine biologists to ensure the dolphins’ well-being, as has recently been achieved in Madeira.



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