Mammal-watching in Spain
Here is a basic guide to the mammals sparkled with data referring to Andalusia and the Cantabrian mountains, two major destinations for mammal-watching in Spain. There are around 250 species in Europe, of which 45% live in the Iberian Peninsula.
While extremely diverse in forms and size, European mammals all belong to the super-group of Boreoeutheria (“northern true beasts”), the placental mammals with scrotum. Let’s mention that primates are related to rodents and lagomorphs. Out of 5.700 species worldwide, six largest mammalian orders represent over 80% of the global diversity : the rodents, bats, shrews & moles, primates (one introduced species in Gibraltar), carnivores (including seals) and even-toed ungulates & cetaceans (artiodactyls). Additionally, three smaller orders are also present in our territory: hares and rabbits, hedgehogs, odd-toed ungulates = horses (perissodactyls).
Mammal-watching challenges in Spain
Mammals present serious challenges to be observed in the wild:
Nocturnal behavior (most species, not only bats). And yet, the largest and most attractive species for mammal-watchers can be remarkably active in daytime: ungulates, cetaceans, marmots, squirels, and even carnivores, chiefly the mangoose and also Iberian lynx and bears in very specific conditions.
Shyness and elusiveness: even in areas where mammals are present, sightings may be rare. Nevertheless, species can be tolerant of and even attracted by humans in protected areas and even suburbs.
Remote and inaccessible locations in mountainous or dense forest areas, making it difficult for observers to access their habitats.
Seasonal variations: The rut period depends on species and favours observations. Snow and muddy soils help to detect tracks.
Information specific to Spanish mammals is highlighted in blue color. Little more than 110 species are present in the Iberian Peninsula, of which a third are medium size and large terrestrial mammals.
Books: mammal field guides
Various comprehensive field guides cover the mammals found in Europe. Most observers of the continent already use reference books that can also be practical while visiting the Iberian Peninsula. Nevertheless, we recommend Spanish guides that are truly excellent:
Purroy F.J. (2016) Mamíferos de España. Lynx editions (Spanish). An illustrated and cheap field guide with straightforward and well-packed information.
Blanco J.C. (1998) Mamíferos de España. Planeta (Spanish). The mastological bible of more than 900 pages (!).
Creating a species checklist for mammal-watching in Spain involves compiling regional lists. The diversity of species can vary depending on the specific ecosystem and geographic location. Here’s a general checklist of mammals you might encounter in Spain:
Lista de los mamíferos de la Península Ibérica , islas Baleares e islas Canarias (Spanish). Link
Download G3-guides’s checklist: Mammals of Andalusia.
Endemic species have their range of distribution restricted to a given territory, the only place where they can be observed in the wild.
Iberian Lynx is indeed the most famous among ten Iberian endemics*. Two ungulates: Spanish ibex and Pyrenean chamois**, two Lepus (out of six in Europe): widespread Spanish hare (L. granatensis) and very rare Broom hare (L. castroviejoi). Within the insectivores: one mole doppelganger: Talpa occidentalis and the unique Iberian desman (Galemys pyrenaicus). Finally, one bat, Myotis escalerai, and three micromammals: Sorex granarius, Microtus cabrerae, M. lusitanicus.
* or sligthly expanding beyond the French border. **nearly endemic since it is related to the rare Abruzzo chamois.
Europe has several regions known for their high concentration of mammals, the consequence of a combination of factors:
- Diverse and large ecosystems with forests, grasslands, wetlands and/or alpine meadows.
- Altitudinal gradients (mountains): a variation in elevation creates different ecological niches.
- Connectivity and corridors allowing for the movement and migration of mammal populations ensuring long-term viability.
- Conservation Importance: Mammal hotspots are often protected areas of high conservation value.
Most famous Spanish regions for mammal-watching:
Sierra Morena and Doñana National Park located in Andalusia, with high densities of ungulates, lynx and mongooses.
Cantabrian / Picos de Europe, northern Spain, rugged and dense forest with Cantabrian Chamois, Brown Bear and more…
- Sierra de la Culebra (Zamora), famous world-wide for the wolves.
Dolphin watching / cetacean tourism
Whale and dolphin watching are surprisingly little known. With an immense coast, Spain offers good spots for observing cetaceans.
- Strait of Gibraltar: a major migratory route for whales. Tarifa is a popular destination to spot 7 cetaceans.
- Bay of Biscay: Santander and Bilbao are common departure points for whale-watching excursions in this region.
- Sea watching capes: Estaca de Bares (Galicia), Cap de Creus in Costa Brava (Catalonia).
- Canary Islands: Tenerife and La Gomera are known for their whale-watching tours: short-finned Pilot Whales, etc.
Spain’s Big Five
In recent years, the meaning of the expression “Big Five” have spread beyond its original meaning of the five quintessential dangerous games hunted in Africa. Nowadays, it usually designates the five most iconic and difficult to watch animals of a given territory.
Mammal-watching tours and guides
Joining a tour is probably the best option to discover a new territory and observe mammals thanks to the skills and knowledge of a local experts. Guided trip are possibly most rewarding with mammals than with any other groups.
G3-guides will be happy to share its experience and optical material and lead parties to look for mammals in Andalusia and Northern Spain. Check our tours.
Responsible behaviour and ethics
Respect wildlife distances: Be safe and respectful, and use binoculars, spotting scopes, and telephoto lenses for observation. Avoid disturbing or approaching animals in their natural habitat. We observed that photographers approach far too often protected species.
On viewing points, it is both pleasant and give good result to observe the scene as team mates. Sharing information about mammals should be restricted with fellow observers and scientists. Avoid sharing detailed locations with the general public.
New optical instruments
Trail cameras or camera traps, are widely used by scientists for monitoring mammals in their natural habitats. Their installation is only legal in private estate with the owner’s consent. Other situations break Data Protection Act and have serious legal consequences.
Recent portable thermal/infra-red cameras could be useful for some people, but generally speaking, they are very expensive, tiring for the eyes and only good at close-range. In my experience, high end telescopes give much better results for mammal-watching. Even at night, torch + binocular allow for better observations.
Tracks and footprint
A common (often unique) method for detecting the presence of terrestrial mammals, which need a considerable experience and to keep in mind that one single footprint is rarely conclusive on its own. The field craft covers excrements and food leftovers.
Easily recognizable footprints: otters, badger, bears, wildboars.
Owl rejection pellets
The best method to detect the presence of rodents and shrews… A subject in itself, hardly considered mammal-watching.
It is worth noting the illustrated Spanish field guide include sketches for the lower mandible of rodents. Micromammal diversity is generally low in Mediterranean regions while extremely high in NW Iberia.
Despite being sad sightings, it is often most easy to detect mammals paying attention to road kills. This method gives an important source of information for scientits. But be also careful with trafic for your personal safety.
SAFE is the Spanish survey scheme for vertebrates road kills (link). You can report your data through the ObsMapp application (Observation.org platform).