Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park

Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park is a natural park in southeastern Spain, near the city of Almería. It is the largest terrestrial-maritime reserve in the European Western Mediterranean Sea, covering 460 km² including the town of Carboneras, the mountain range of Sierra de Cabo de Gata, and 120 km² of the sea as a part of a Marine reserve. It is of volcanic origin and is centred around the Cabo de Gata headland. Its climate is semiarid to the extent of being the driest location inEurope. In 1997 it was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In 2001 it was included among the Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance. In 2010 it was proposed as a dump for nuclear waste.

There are over 1,000 plants recorded in the reserve, some of which are endemic to the park, including the pink snapdragon (Antirrhinum charidemi), known to the locals as the Dragoncillo del Cabo. The majority of the species are adapted for the semi-arid conditions: the European fan palm (Chamaerops humilis), Europe’s only native palm, supplements the meagre groundwater supplies with dew and airborne moisture. Iberia’s largest population of jujube (Ziziphus zizyphus), a thorny shrub, populates the steppe. The scrubland is composed of olive trees (Olea europaea), mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), Kermes oaks (Quercus coccifera), esparto grass(Stipa tenacissima), thyme (Thymus) and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Around the salt flats are colonies of saltworts, common reeds (Phragmites australis) and the glasswort (Salicornia fruticosa). In the coastal waters are extensive beds of seagrass (Posidonia oceanica), which is endemic to the Mediterranean, and 260 species of seaweed.

Fauna

1,100 species of fauna have been recorded within the park, the majority of which are birds. The European Union has designated a Special Protection Area for bird-life. The salt flats provide an important habitat for both the resident birds and the thousands of migrating birds that stop on their journey between Europe and Africa. Species found around the salt flats include flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus); grey (Ardea cinerea) and purple herons (Ardea purpurea); storks; cranes; waders including avocets and oystercatchers; and overwintering ducks. Many species of lark live on the steppe, including the rare Dupont’s lark (Chersophilus duponti) and there are also little bustards (Tetrax tetrax) and stone curlews (Burhinus oedicnemus). Sea birds include yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis), terns, razorbills (Alca torda), shags, the occasional puffin (Fratercula arctica) and Cory’s (Calonectris diomedea) and Balearic shearwaters (Puffinus mauretanicus). The wealth of animal life provides prey for a number ofraptors: ospreys (Pandion haliaetus), peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus), kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) and eagles. Approximately 15 species of reptile are found in the park, including Italian wall lizards (Podarcis sicula) (uniquely in Spain), ocellated lizards (Timon lepidus), grass snakes (Natrix natrix) and Lataste’s viper (Vipera latastei). The maritime reserve is home to various species of crustaceans, molluscs and fishes including the common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis), Pinna nobilis which produces sea silk, the Mediterranean moray (Muraena helena) which was regarded as a delicacy by the Romans, the garfish (Belone belone) and flying gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans), which uses its enlarged pectoral fins to “walk” along the ocean floor. Seaweeds host fish such as bream and grouper. Among the mammals in the park are common genets (Genetta genetta), wild boar (Sus scrofa), the garden dormouse (Eliomys quercinus) and the least weasel (Mustela nivalis), the smallest terrestrial mammalian carnivore. The seagrass used to provide a habitat for the endangered monk seal (Monachus monachus). Up until the 1960s it was one of the last locations where this seal bred in Spain, the islet of Tabarca being the other. Although occasionally sighted offshore, no seals have bred in the park since 1965.

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