I do realise this is a bit of a scary header. But, rest assured, you have seldom read a more reassuring article on scary animals. Even though Madeira is a subtropical island, where all kinds of nasty critters would thrive because of the climate, there are no poisonous or otherwise dangerous animals in Madeira.
For us, children of the cool north, poisonous animals are perhaps more scary than to people who are native to warmer climates. Though I know that there are vipers in the dry and wooded East of my country, the Netherlands, I never actually saw one there.
When we started considering moving to a better climate in winter, the knowledge that we might have to deal with scorpions or poisonous snakes did concern us, to a point where we considered it might have been a dealbreaker.
So when the new location of our choice was going to be Madeira, we were very pleased with the fact that there are no scorpions on the island. But let me just stop and tell you what beasties you may encounter.
Let me start with the lizards. Not because they are scary – though some may disagree with me – but because you can’t miss them in Madeira. They have their own species: the Madeira Wall Lizard or Teira dugesii. Completely harmless and very useful, as it feeds on any insects around your house. As soon as the sun is out, there they are, basking (more like bringing their body temperature up). They are fast and shy, and they won’t usually go into your house. Don’t leave any empty plastic bowls or containers open and upright in the garden, they will try and investigate and get trapped because the sides are too slippery for them to climb out.
There used to be no snakes at all in the archipelago. But it is said that the Indotyphlops braminus, or Flower Pot snake, has been accidentally introduced. This is a blind snake that feeds on insect eggs and larvae and spends most of his life underground. It is completely harmless to humans and pets, as it can’t bite. An Adult Flower Pot snake is only 4.5 to 6.5 inches long, nothing to worry about.
Oh yes, there are spiders in Madeira and some of them can be quite large. Scary, maybe, but these, too, are completely harmless. The best known is the Hogna maderiana, the Madeira Wolf Spider, sometimes also called the Madeira Tarantula. It is completely harmless, though scary for anyone afraid of spiders. It should not be mistaken for the Hogna ingens, the Desertas Wolf Spider. Now, that species is poisonous, though not deadly for humans. But rest assured: you won’t ever come across one, as it is an endangered species, that only lives in one single valley on Deserta Grande, the vale da Castanheira. If ever you go to Deserta Grande, you are only allowed within a short distance from the shoreline, and only under the watchful eye of a nature guide. On the other islands of the Madeira archipelago, including, obviously, Madeira and Porto Santo, there are no Desertas Wolf Spiders.
Like any other place, there are rats in Madeira. But if you hear the Madeirans talk about ‘ratos, it is not rats they ar talking about, but mice. They might even be talking about their computer, because the computer mouse is called ‘rato‘ as well. When they mean rats, they will call them ratazanas. There are rats (and mice) in Madeira, no more or less than anywhere else. There is a government service that keeps them at bay, the desratação. You won’t find them in or near a clean house, as there is plenty of food to be found for them outside. They love fruit – so don’t leave fallen fruit on the ground – but on the other hand, they provide food for birds of prey like the Canarian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus canariensis) , the Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo buteo), the majestic Madeira Buzzard, scientifically known as Buteo Buteo Harterti, and, of course for stray cats that can survive very well in the mild Madeiran climate.
Alas, there are cockroaches in Madeira, like anywhere else. We are fortunate, because at our altitude of 550 metres we have never seen any. We did see them in the lower areas of Madeira. The best way to remain free of cockroaches is simply making sure the house is clean and there is no abandoned rubbish anywhere near it. Food scraps must be put in an airtight container or – better still – in the fridge or freezer. And to not kill the very useful house centipede (more about this critter further down the page)
Of course, there are mosquitos in Madeira. But again, we are fortunate, we rarely have them in our house. Probably because of our altitude, and also because there is no stagnant water nearby. During 2012 and 2013, there was an outbreak of Dengue, caused by the Aedes aegypti, the tiger mosquito. But fortunately, the authorities had soon discovered that larvae of these mosquitos can’t survive in salt water, so they have since started to spray the suspect areas with seawater. It has reduced the species a lot, and a couple of (relatively) fresh winters has taken care of the dengue virus. Since those years, there have been no further outbreaks of the disease.
Wasps and bees
There are wasps in Madeira, though I find them unaggressive unless you hunt them. Bees are abundant, the apiculture is widely spread. And so it should be, as we want a nice poncha from time to time, and honey is a key ingredient. The Madeiran bees seem to be unaggressive as well, but maybe the beekeeper has a different opinion when he is busy stealing their honey. In our garden, there are always many bumblebees, enjoying the nectar of the abundant flowers, even in winter.
There are ticks in Madeira, like anywhere else. However, according to doctors and confirmed by my local pharmacist, there is no Lyme’s disease (yet) on the island. Still, I would recommend checking carefully for ticks, after walks in Madeira’s overwhelming nature, if you know you are susceptible to Lyme infections.
Another harmless creature you are surely going to see in Madeira is the Portuguese millipede, the Ommatoiulus moreleti, which is usually called Vaca Preta or Vaca Negra in Madeira, which means black cow. Why they would call it that is beyond me, the vaca part of it, I mean. It has nothing in common with a cow, fortunately, as it is only up to an inch long. They live in loose garden soil and eat decomposing vegetal material. For a reason unknown to me, they tend to crawl into houses when it gets rainy. There is no food for them there, they are out of their habitat, and they end curled up on the walls, dead. They are perfectly harmless, but quite annoying if there are many of them. We have managed to keep them at bay in our garden.
Finallly, lets have a look at the House Centipede, which you will probably also see. Its Latin name is Scutigera coleoptrata. They are active at night, so you may never see one, but if you do, leave it in peace. It is an excellent hunter for mosquitos, bed bugs, silverfish, spiders and, not unimportant, cockroaches. For humans, it is perfectly harmless.
Note on allergies
Where I write that one of the above creatures is perfectly harmless, you had best not touch them it you are allergic to insect bites. A am in no way an expert on this subject, but if you are suffering from such an allergy, you will know what to do and what to avoid.
Unlike many other places in Southern Europe, Madeira lacks the usual dangerous creatures. You can safely lift a rock to see what’s underneath, and you can stroll the woods without having to watch out for snakes. A perfectly safe place.
The only real vermin in Madeira are the species politicus corruptus maderensis, corrupt politicians and the handful of ultrawealthy families of the species who pay the ruling party to do as they wish. These nasty species spike my allergies no end, and I steer clear of those whenever I can.