Birds barking like dogs, lizards pollinating from flower to flower, herbs that have decided to become huge trees. Learning about the islands as laboratories of Life, one is deceived by the thought of being prepared for all kinds of wonders. And then, we experience those wonders with your own senses.
The story begins a long time ago in the Atlantic Ocean, when the African tectonic plate succumbed to enraged magma, and one by one the extinguished volcanic formations began to emerge from the water. It thundered, snapped and wobbled in the cold waters of the Atlantic for millions of years, until the turmoil calmed down and took on its present appearance, and the archipelago assumed its present form.
Although politically belonging to Europe and located several thousand kilometers from Sagres in Portugal - the closest European continental part, the Madeira Archipelago is nevertheless geographically closer to the west coast of Africa, approximately 600 kilometers away. This island family consists of two larger inhabited islands, namely: the head of the water house - Madeira, its significantly smaller but geologically oldest sidekick - the island of Porto Santo, and the two tiny archipelago sub-families of Desertas and Selvaens, each consisting of three islands. The members of the archipelago are not the same age: Porto Santo was formed about three million years ago, while Madeira itself broke the surface seven million years ago. These timelines may seem long, but from Earth's perspective they are almost a blink, making Madeira a group of young islands.
We are naive in believing that we invented hitchhiking. Plants, animals and the rest of the living world hitch rides on winds, clouds, sea currents, floating trunks, and other objects, including the usual vehicles that we use today, such as ships and cars. This is exactly how life world began to inhabit these newly created patches of land, long before man.
The islands contain small specimens of continental life, which is now in a completely new environment, in this case in the optimal conditions, where it simply ran wild. The temperature on Madeira Island throughout the year ranges from 19 to 25 degrees Celsius, there are practically no predators, nor the cold winters that one way or another force life to slow down. Plus - the area is very small, which makes it especially interesting. Birds no longer need to fly because they do not have to travel great distances for food or to escape, thus saving energy and reducing wings as they eggs lay on the ground. Some herbs from the continent grow into huge trees here, with few pollinators making longer vegetation period more viable.
Particularly important was an encounter with a kind of snail with an identity crisis, that at first glance seems like a slug, responding to irritation by raising its outgrowth flap-like, showing that there is a shell underneath.
One of the unusual occurrences on Madeira Island is that, due to the lack of insects as pollinators, some species of reptiles have found themselves a good place to work and have filled that trophic niche themselves. However, they were not the only ones who have managed to achieve this. Just as a flock of pigeons and sparrows approach you in the park as you share with them your favorite pastries, in some places on this island you can expect that in the same situation, those same lizards will come crawling over your arm, your feet, and even over your head toward your delicious sandwich.
Due to the above specificities and geographical isolation, the island ecosystems are abundant with species that can be found only in this place, known as endemic species. Although the percentage of endemic species here is approximately 19%, which may not be much in comparison with other archipelagos, it is enough to practically step on one wherever you go.
These genetic treasures, which are precious records of the most creative artist proven so far, Mr Evolution, have come under pressure from all sides. And each cause is more or less indirectly related to the action of one species - Homo Sapiens.
The first overseas adventures led to the first interventions in the island's wildlife, when sailors left goats or sheep on the islands (while some savvy and adventurous rats arrived as stowaways) to ensure that a meal would wait when they returned. Now imagine goats arriving to one such place. After rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the abundance stretching before them, the goats started to graze whatever they could, because the plants were completely unprepared for them and had no defense mechanisms. Rats came across a buffet of bird eggs on earth thus destroying endemic vegetation and wildlife.
For human settlement, people find it necessary to demolish the mighty forest that was so uselessly humming, and the first colonists, by systematic burning of the local flora, sent to smoke a large part of the laurel forests that covered Madeira, which gave its name (madeira to Portuguese means wood). The wild was thus converted into pastures, fields or residential areas.
After burning down most of the forests, they realized they still needed them, and began to plant them again. But who will now bother with naturally occurring species and wait for them to reach the biomass profitable for exploitation? Better bring some fast-growing trees, such as, for example, eucalyptus. Planting species that are convenient for economic viability became a common practice, and at first seemed like a good idea. However, time has shown that these trees are known to suppress natural vegetation, which can bring with it a number of fatal consequences for the ecosystem. Starting from the fact that the animals that depend on them cannot use them in the most optimal way, sometimes there are no micro-organisms in the soil that can decompose their leaves and the areas below them become biological deserts, which acidify the soil more than the environment can endure, to the point that a wrongly selected species can cause a higher frequency of fires and soil erosion.
On Madeira Island, one of these species is eucalyptus. Accustomed to harsh conditions in Australia, where it comes from, it is a dangerous competitor for whom even the human brain has failed to find a weak spot. If you cut it, you will only scatter the seeds even more, and a handful of new shoots will emerge from the trunk. Burning does more harm than good because eucalyptus seeds are used to wildfires, so the fire allows them to sprout. Following the inane logic that led to this, perhaps it might be prudent to bring in koalas, to kill the eucaliptus trees. Along with the rest of the island.
"Discovered" some 600 years ago (as if places and people did not exist unless someone drew them on a map), Madeira Island quickly became very densely populated. No wonder - everyone wants to live in paradise. They even transported sand from the continent for the purpose of making artificial beaches (because the local sand was too hard), bringing with them mosquito larvae.
As the whole Madeira Island is in peaks and gorges, it was amazing to see all the inaccessible parts being tamed, the steep slopes of vineyards and some enthusiasts' homes. It's hard to imagine how often guest can visit a person surrounded by a two hundred-meter-deep wooded chasm - which was maybe the purpose of building here in the first place.
Living in paradise has its price, which the islanders had the opportunity to experience in February this year. The storms and enormous floods experienced by the locals were described as "a tsunami that came from heaven". Heavy rains set off down the slopes of the mountain ranges, carrying everything before of them, plunging into inhabited places at the foothills. A large number of houses built by the rivers have been demolished and torn away, and their empty shells can still be seen in some places. More important than bricks and mortar, nearly forty lives were taken by storm.
Just as the living world of the island nature is a small sample of life from a continent that has been scattered, grown, developed and transformed into a new and specific blend of the old and the exotic, so is the culture of Madeira Island. Inhabited by the Portuguese, with an incredible inclination to put their national flags in places where the concept had not yet been introduced, on Madeira they did not conquer the indiginous culture and turn them into forced volunteers known as slaves because, according to historical data , the island of Madeira was uninhabited.
One of the cultural treasures that flooded the ocean was traditional Portuguese fado music. There are Portuguese fado cafes in Madeira, where you will also find endemic beer, endemic wine, and a real typical endemic drink damn near the drink of the gods - the poncho. Madeiran wine is widely known and could be characterized as an endemic porto - it was brought and grown into something else, specific to this place only, while the poncho is a blend of white rum, honey and lemon with permissible variations, exquisitely combined by vigorous mixing with a special wooden spoon. In fado bars, you can hear the iconic Portuguese guitar used by Carlos Paredes, an instrument with twice as many strings as the standard guitar, still in the race to outsing the turmoil of a living, endless ocean.
While the idea of remote islands brings to mind palm trees, cocktails, beach life and girls in straw skirts, on Madera Island that is not the case. Darwin was only one of many who recognized their importance and who came to his most important knowledge by studying them. The islands teach us how to preserve the little intact nature left over in the continental parts, as nowadays such places have become islands in the anthropogenically altered sea, microcosms with their own rules, evolutionary polygons, biodiversity treasure chests. Being in a place like this and witnessing all its wonders, living in a forest where the nostrils soak up the scent of pristine cleanliness, feeling under the fingertips the furrows on the bark of ancient trees, teaches us that in this world there is enough room for everyone and everything - if we allow it.