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Map of the Macaronesia
green=Azores; yellow=Madeira; purple=Selvagens;
blue=Canary Islands; red=Cape Verde

The Macaronesian islands, or simply Macaronesia is a modern name for several groups of islands of volcanic origin in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Europe and Africa. They belong to three countries: Portugal, Spain, and Cape Verde.

Origin of name[change | change source]

Macaronesia (Greek: makáron 'blessed', 'happy' and nêsoi 'island'; 'blessed/fortunate islands'). This term was used by Ancient Greek geographers for islands to the west of the Strait of Gibraltar.

The modern use of the term Macaronesia goes to the botanist Philip Barker Webb in the 1830s for botanical descriptions.[1] The name is occasionally misspelled "Macronesia" in analogy with Micronesia.

Islands included[change | change source]

The following groups of islands (archipelagos) are commonly counted as being part of the Macaronesia - from north to south:

  1. Portuguese islands
  2. Spanish islands
  3. Independent

Spanish is spoken in the Canary Islands and Portuguese in the rest of the islands. Cape Verde was a colony of Portugal but it is independent since 1975.

Geography and environment[change | change source]

Laurel forest (Laurisilva) in the Madeira island.

The islands of Macaronesia are volcanic in origin, and are thought to be the product of several geologic hotspots.

The climate of the Macaronesian islands goes from Mediterranean in the Azores and Madeira to arid in Cape Verde. The Portuguese archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira have a generally cooler climate and higher rainfall than the Canary Islands and Cape Verde.

Even if the distances between the different groups of islands are large, the plants and animals are similar and there are many endemic plants that are found only in these islands.

The islands have a unique biogeography, and are home to several distinct plant and animal communities. The laurel forests,[a] known as laurisilva, of Macaronesia are a type of mountain cloud forest[b] with species of a vegetation type which originally covered much of the Mediterranean Basin when the climate of the region was more humid and evolved to adapt to island conditions. These forests once covered most of the Azores, Madeira, and parts of the Canary Islands ("Canaries") between 400–1200 m altitude (the eastern Canaries and Cape Verde being too dry).

Conservation issues[change | change source]

Cutting the trees for timber and wood, clearing vegetation for grazing and agriculture, and the introduction of plants and animals by humans has displaced much of the native vegetation. The laurisilva has been reduced to small pockets. As a result, many of the endemic biota of the islands are seriously endangered or extinct.

Notes[change | change source]

  1. A laurel forest or laurisilva means that the trees have leaves as the laurel but it does not mean that there are laurel trees or any other tree of the family Lauraceae, even if they are common in this type of forest.
  2. A cloud forest is a tropical or subtropical, evergreen, moist forest in mountains characterized by a persistent, frequent or seasonal low-level cloud cover. Cloud forests often have an abundance of mosses covering the ground and vegetation.

References[change | change source]

  1. Kunkel, Günther (1993). Die Kanarischen Inseln und ihre Pflanzenwelt (in German). Stuttgart, Jena, New York: Gustav Fischer Verlag. ISBN 3-437-20491-2.

Other websites[change | change source]

  • Jérôme Petit et Guillaume Prudent, « Macaronésie », Changement climatique et biodiversité dans l’outre-mer européen, UICN/ONERC, 2008, p. 124-137