Nature and Wildlife of Tenerife – by Crossbill Guides
A warm welcome to this page about the nature and wildlife of Tenerife. It complements the Crossbill nature travel guide to Tenerife and La Gomera. This is an online Crossbill Guide ‘light’ for the armchair traveller. It offers some general insights and images to prepare you for your visit, plus some practical information on birdwatching, sites and a free route from the Crossbill Guide. Enjoy!
Tenerife is the largest of the seven Canary Islands. It is also the most diverse, both in scenery and in wildlife. The island consists of a central, giant volcano, plus two older mountain ranges in the northwest (Teno) and north-east (Anaga), which give Tenerife its typical ‘pork-chop’ outline. In the centre of the island, at approximately 2,400 metres, lies a massive caldera, measuring some 15 kilometres across. Inside this crater, high above the clouds, lies a unique plain from which the mighty El Teide volcano rises. At 3718 metres, it is higher than the Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada making it the highest mountain of Spain.
Landscape of Tenerife
Tenerife’s landscapes are spectacular and remarkably diverse. Between the wild and rocky coasts and the barren crater rim, there is a wide variety of landscapes, ranging from wet to dry, hot to cold and from densely forested to almost devoid of vegetation.
Even more than usual, the ecosystems of Tenerife are well defined and layered according to altitude and slope. This makes the island is spectacularly ‘readable’. Each vegetation zone has its own appeal, its own atmosphere, and very often even its own weather, colour and smell. They are different worlds within one island. These are Tenerife’s ecosystems:
The coast is hot and due to the breaking waves, saline. Just a few hardy plant species can grow in these extreme conditions. Even in mid-winter, it is warm enough for warmth-loving reptiles and butterflies. The tidal pools are special ecosystems full of colourful fish, shellfish and crabs.
Semi-desert succulent scrub grows at low altitudes and forms a large belt especially on the southern slopes. Succulent (cactus-like) plants, many of which are unique to the Canary Islands, dominate the scene. There are also some desert birds.
Warmth-loving bushland (also called thermophilous forest) grows in the barrancos (ravines) and above the succulent scrub zone. It is dense and has a very high diversity of plants.
On the north slopes it almost goes down to sea level, but on the south side it reaches no lower than 700 metres. This zone attracts a wide variety of birds especially in the barrancos. Most villages are situated in this zone, which makes the natural vegetation here more threatened than elsewhere.
Laurel cloud forests are present above the thermophilous forest on the north side of the island, roughly between 600-100 metres. North-easterly trade winds that collide with the mountains are pushed up, condense and form clouds at this level. The almost daily mist and frequent rainfall supports a unique mossy forest consisting mostly of various species of laurels. This forest is unique to the Canary Islands and Madeira.
A surprisingly open subalpine forest of the endemic Canary Pine forms a ring around the mountain peak. It replaces the cloud forests above 1200 metres (the average height of clouds) on the north slope and the thermophilous forest to the south. Again, the highest diversity of wildlife is found in the barrancos.
The high mountain habitat inside the crater and on the slopes of El Teide form a world on its own. Almost all plants and animals here are only found in this region. It is a hotspot of diversity and the landscapes are dramatic.
The naturalist top 10
Ten highlights of your visit to Tenerife
The coastal cliffs, the ravines, the craters, the dense, moss-covered laurel forests, the sharp colour contrasts of black basalt and colourful plants – in short, the scenery, is amazing.
Tenerife is the Galapagos of botany. Around 35% of the plant species occurring here are either exlcusively found on the Canary Islands, or only on Tenerife itself.
Tenerife has many endemic or near-endemic birds, making it a hotspot for birdwatching. This is the place to see Tenerife Blue Chaffinch, Tenerife Goldcrest, Laurel Pigeon and Bolle’s Pigeon and of course, the Canary.
Being such a mountainous island, Tenerife has very clear vegetation zones. Each of them is a world of its own, with unique species, its own feel, atmosphere and even smell. Go from the black lava beaches, through the hot semi desert lowlands, on into warm low bushland (the ‘thermophilous forest’), up to the damp and misty cloud forests, the ring of subalpine pine forests and up to the crater, where, above the tree level, a high mountain ecosystem ‘Tenerife-style’ awaits you.
There are many trails in Tenerife. Some are famous, like those in the spectacular Masca Gorge and the ‘Garganta de los Infiernos’. They are in every brochure and therefore busy, but they are also the places with a very high diversity of Tenerife wildlife and, above all wildflowers. Other top walks for naturalists are in the barrancos (gorges) on the north side of the islands and of course in the crater.
You can visit the actual Teide, which is great for the experience (and very popular), but the many trails in the central caldera at the base of the Teide is for flora and fauna (and perhaps for scenery too) even more impressive.
On most days, especially from autumn to spring, a cover of clouds form on the north slope of the island. This ‘feeds’ the laurel forest with water. Driving up to the caldera, you pierce the clouds as if you were in an airplane. Magnificent, especially at sunset.
From inside the caldera, the nights are usually very clear. Perfect for stargazing.
The laurel forests benefit from the moisture of the clouds that form on the middle section of the northern slopes. They are a magnificent, mossy treasure chamber of biodiversity. They are ancient too – relicts from the Tertiary era.
From several of the black beaches, snorkelling is superb. A large variety of colourful subtropical fish swim around the rocky edges. There is a (limited) number of whales and dolphins that can be seen in Tenerife’s waters. There are dolphin watching companies to take you to them (note that these companies cater for general tourists rather than naturalists).
Birds, butterflies and wildflowers – The flora and fauna of Tenerife
A slate-blue finch, a crimson-red, three-metre tall viper’s-bugloss, a blue-throated ‘giant lizard’, a green-striped white butterfly –species that occur nowhere else in the world but on Tenerife.
They are called ‘island endemics’: living organisms unique to a specific island. The most famous island endemics are the finches Charles Darwin found on the Galapagos Islands which helped trigger his theory of evolution on. Several plant families on Tenerife could have served as well earlier on his trip. He was tantalizingly close as his ship, the Beagle, stopped en route at Tenerife’s Santa Cruz. Darwin was eager to explore the island, but was denied access by the authorities, due to illnesses on board of the ship. Had he been allowed ashore, we may very well have been talking about Darwin’s marguerites, rather than Darwin’s finches.
Evolution is isolation
Isolation is key to this strange diversity of plants. Tenerife, like all the other Canary Islands and nearby Madeira, are volcanic islands that sprung from the ocean’s floor. It was never part of any land mass, thus never inherited any flora and fauna. What occurs on Tenerife, chanced its way onto the island. And evolved there on the spot. Therefore, there are so many unique species.
Since the likelihood of migrating from the one Canary Island to another is higher than doing so from the mainland, the various islands share many closely related species, but very few with Africa and Europe. This, plus the spectacular scenery makes the Canary Islands such superb destinations for travellers.
Flora of Tenerife
Undoubtedly, the flora of Tenerife is the most exceptional. Some groups (genera) are represented with many different species. One such is the viper’s-bugloss (Echium), of which there are no less than 10 species occur. About half of those are shrubs or small trees rather than herbs (as viper’s-buglosses are in Europe). This phenomenon is known as island gigantism – species evolve to become much larger on islands than on the mainland.
Other superb wildflowers on Tenerife are sow-thistles (11 species, growing up to 3 metres), marguerites (Argyranthemum), spurges (Euphorbia), laurel trees, pericallises, sea lavenders (Limonium), houseleeks (Aeonium), a few endemic orchids, and many, many more.
Birds of Tenerife
Although the number of different birds on Tenerife is not high, they include a number of species found only on the Canary Islands, or are only shared with some the other Atlantic Islands: Tenerife Blue Chaffinch, Berthelot’s Pipit, Tenerife Goldcrest, Canary Islands Chiffchaff, Laurel Pigeon and Bolle’s Pigeon and of course, the Canary. Of the more familiar birds, such as Great Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinch, Kestrel and Buzzard. Add to this a good number of seabirds and more widespread Mediterranean birds, and Tenerife has a highly attractive mix of species.
Reptiles, dragonflies, butterflies
Apart from the ubiquitous Tenerife Giant Lizards, there are an endemic gecko and skink on Tenerife, which are quite hard to find. The number of butterflies and dragonflies is limited, but include various species only found on the Canary Islands. Tenerife Grayling and Green-striped White are even endemics to Tenerife.
Top 10 species
Ten superb plant and animal species of Tenerife
One of the biggest of the 10 species of native viper’s buglosses, Echium wildpretii is the most extreme. Up to three metres high, with a flower stalk of 1.5 metres and growing in the lunar landscape of the inside of the caldera, this is a spectacular plant. It flowers in May-July.
There are various groups of plants that are examples of speciation and evolution in the Canaries (e.g. marguerites, sow-thistles, viper’s bulgosses, spurges), but of these the houseleeks enjoy a special position because of their unique appearance. They range from the miniature Monanthes species to the giant Aeonium houseleeks and can be found on all rocky habitats. Some species even root on the bark of trees.
This slate-blue (male) finch lives only in the ring of pine forests around Tenerife’s caldera (The extremely rare and endangered population of blue chaffinches on Gran Canaria is now considered a separate species).
It is not so hard to find, as it is drawn to water that is available at some of the picnic sites. It can be seen year-round.
Although member of the blue butterfly family, the Canary Blue looks very different from its relatives. There is only one similar-looking species, that occurs only on islands of Africa’s east coast – a distribution that has puzzled biologists for a long time.
The Canary Blue is present in all altitude zones from spring to autumn. Low numbers occur on the south coast in winter.
Occurring in huge numbers, the Tenerife giant lizard is an almost guaranteed sighting. They occur in almost any place with some stones and sunny spots. Colour and size is highly variable; the males sport bright blue, yellow, green and black patches.
This strange but beautiful tree is native to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands and Madeira. The most famous and beautiful dragon tree is the Dragon Tree of Icod.
Its natural habitat is the thermophile bushland and the barrancos at lower altitudes, but you’ll see it, mostly planted, more widely. It has become rare in the wild mostly because it rejuvenates slowly. Biologists think that seeds only germinate properly when it is digested first by birds; and that the bird that used to eat these seeds, a species of bunting, is now extinct.
These two Pigeons are found only on the western Canary Islands and therefore a grand prize for birdwatchers. They prefer slightly different habitats but are both associated with the laurel forest. They live deep in the canopies of laurel trees and are therefore not easy to get a good look at.
The familiar bellflower reinvented. Not a blue-flowered herb but a vine with huge red bells. It is quite common in laurel forest clearings and along tracks, cliffs and stone walls.
No, it is not a cactus. This very conspicuous plant of the driest and hottest parts of Tenerife has the succulent growth form of a cactus but is member of the spurge family.
There are just a few species of orchids on Tenerife, and this is one of them. It is rather inconspicuous, but special for two reasons. First, it flowers in winter and second, it is not a relative of any of the European wild orchids, but of an American genus – Habenaria. Three-fingered Orchid is endemic to the western Canary Islands and grows in crevices of rocks and walls, mostly on the north slope, beneath the laurel forest zone.
Routes and practicalities
So far, the theory. Is all of this visible when you’re travelling? Yes, it is. The landscapes are striking for everyone, and the rare and endemic species are for the most part strikingly different than the plants you know from home, even if you’re not a botanist.
Tenerife has a great, perhaps even too great, tourism network. There is a large number of hotels, restaurants and bars; the roads are excellent and cars are easy to hire and not very expensive. There is also an excellent network of walking trails.
The best routes, both car routes and walking routes, are described in our Crossbill guidebook on Tenerife and La Gomera.
There is no such thing as a totally environmentally friendly trip to the Canary Islands, but there are ways to minimise your impact on the environment.
- A lot of food is imported from the mainland – either by boat or, if it is fresh, by plane. As far as possible choose foods produced on the islands, in particular the fresh goods like vegetables, fish and meat.
- Tap water is safe all over the island. Use it instead of bottled water to minimise waste.
- Coastal lagoons and freshwater ponds are important resting spots for migrant birds. When you go out birding, keep in mind that as these sites are small, birds are easily disturbed.
Interesting links about wildlife in Tenerife
The Crossbill Guides are the most comprehensible nature travel guides available. Each Crossbill Guide covers in depth descriptions on landscape, habitats, geology and all the species groups, and links these to routes where this can be seen.
These routes are typically a mixture of walking routes and car routes with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover all the sites for seeing birds, butterflies, dragonflies, plants, mammals and reptiles. They are also set out to show you the finest examples of the ecosystems and geological features. In short, everything for nature lovers.
The volume that covers Tenerife is called Canary Islands II and covers both Tenerife and nearby islands.
- 224 pages
- 13 detailed routes
- site descriptions
Dirk Hilbers (NL, 1976), set up the Crossbill Guides Foundation and travels Europe to research the guidebooks. This is the 17th guide he worked on. As a biologist, when not in the field, Dirk Hilbers is a free-lance writer and lecturer in the field of nature education and environmental ethics.
Kees Woutersen (NL, 1956) has lived in Huesca for 20 years, working as a nature and bird guide throughout Spain. He runs his own travel company, Aragon Natuurreizen. Kees Woutersen is author of various books on the birds and natural history of the Pyrenees and Aragon, e.g. the Atlases of the Birds of Huesca and Ordesa.