Tag Archives: Mammals of Spain

Cantabrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Oso Pardo Cantábrico

UPDATE 04/05/2021
  • The latest study titled Cantabrian bears. Demographics, coexistence and conservation challenges. has now been published and makes fascinating reading.

Cantabrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Oso Pardo Cantábrico is a flagship species of the Iberian fauna. As a key species situated at the apex of the food chain, it plays a crucial role in maintaining the functionality and diversity of the ecosystems it inhabits. Together with other flagship species, such as the wolf, Iberian lynx or Spanish ibex, the Cantabrian brown bear is an outstanding representative of the megafauna which has survived until today. They are the last witnesses of the numerous large mammals of the Pleistocene era, which have survived better in Spain than in the remainder of the Western European countries, contributing as part of the cultural heritage of the human societies alongside which they have coexisted for millennia.

The Cantabrian brown bear is a large carnivore and as such, invokes respect as well as fear amongst humans. These animals, at the same time as generating a degree of unrest among livestock farmers are also an emblematic species and indicators of the well conserved condition of the Cantabrian forests.

Guillermo Palomero, Fernando Ballesteros, Juan Carlos Blanco, José Vicente López-Bao (Editors)

Click the below link to download the publication in pdf format.


Cantabrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Oso Pardo Cantábrico

Special thanks for help with this original article about the Cantabrian Brown Bear go to Lisa Stuart who, together with Mike, runs a wonderful guesthouse in the Picos de Europa national park. They also organise outdoor activities and adventures in this stunning part of Spain

Ask Lisa about finding bears in the Picos de Europa.

Listed in the Spanish Catalogue of Endangered Species (Catálogo Nacional de Especies Amenazadas) as being in danger of extinction, the Cantabrian brown bear’s existence in Spain is not widely known.

Genetically different?

Cantabrian brown bears have developed a slightly different genetic identity to other brown bears, although not as different as was once believed. A study in 2007 led by mainly Spanish scientists hoping to prove the subspecies status of the Iberian bears, has revealed them instead to be more closely related to the European brown bear (in particular those of Southern Scandanavia) than was previously thought.
So rather than once being scientifically known as Ursus arctos pyrenaicus, they are now classed as simply Ursus arctos.

Hunted and persecuted

Having once roamed most of the mountains of the Iberian peninsular, the Cantabrian brown bear was seen by man to be competition for food and the population was reduced in the first half of the twentieth century to two isolated pockets in the northerly mountains of the Cordillera Cantábrica. Systematic persecution through hunting led to a drastic decline in numbers and a total ban on hunting did not come into force until 1973. The maximum fine for killing a bear in Spain is now €300,000.

Continue reading Cantabrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Oso Pardo Cantábrico

Egyptian mongoose – Herpestes ichneumon – Meloncillo

  • English: Egyptian mongoose or Ichneumon
  • Scientific: Herpestes ichneumon
  • Spanish: Meloncillo
  • French: Mangouste ichneumon
  • German: Ichneumon
  • Portugese: Sacarrabos, Saca-rabos, Icnêumone, Rato-de-faraó, Rato-do-egipto, Manguço, Escalavardo

The Egyptian mongoose – Herpestes ichneumon – Meloncillo is also known as the ichneumon and although it is thought to be introduced to the Iberian Peninsula its been here long enough, I think, to be called a native.

Found along the coastal regions of the Mediterranean between North Africa and Turkey and Africa, there are several hypotheses to explain the occurrence of the Egyptian mongoose in Iberia.

  • TraditionalIy, it was thought to have been introduced following the Muslim invasion in the 8th century.
  • Bones of Egyptian mongoose excavated in Spain were then radiocarbon dated to the first century leading to the theory that an introduction during the Roman Hispania era ocurred.
  • Other authors have proposed a natural colonisation of the Iberian Peninsula during the Pleistocene across a land bridge when sea levels were lower between Iberia and the nearby African land mass

With the last point in mind many authors consider the entire Iberian peninsular to be populated by the subspecies Herpestes ichneumon widdringtonii. It is distinguished from the populations in North Africa due to its somewhat larger size, darker color and much larger teeth

The Egyptian mongoose - Herpestes ichneumon - Meloncillo is also known as the ichneumon and although it is thought to be introduced to the Iberian Peninsula
The Egyptian mongoose – Herpestes ichneumon – Meloncillo – often seen crossing the road at dusk

The legend of the giant hairy serpent

For many years legends and rumors floated around in many areas of Spain about a “hairy snake like monster” (el serpiente peluda). Stories to frighten children before bedtime, I would think, but actually based on real sightings of real animals?

In the summer of 2021 I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time (without a camera sadly he sighs!) to witness a family of Egyptian mongooses crossing a road. Head to tail they went in size order with the male presumably first, then the female and 5 youngsters following. I could easily understand that in bad light and weather this blur of low moving fur, teeth and tail could produce such legends of marshland monsters!

The following video (in Spanish) is well worth watching to see the Egyptian mongoose – Herpestes ichneumon – Meloncillo in action. (The footage of the scared hunter is really funny when he thinks he has seen the serpiente peluda!)

Egyptian mongoose are opportunistic predators, feeding on small vertebrates including rodents, birds, reptiles, frogs and various invertebrates such as insects, snails, crabs, and worms. They also eat plant matter such as fruits and tubers.

In many areas the easy meal of a chicken or domestic rabbit is also on the menu and I feel that the Iberian fox very often gets the blame for the work of a hungry mongoose.

Further reading

Have a look at the cultural references on the wikipedia entry for the Egyptian mongoose – Herpestes ichneumon – Meloncillo…. it is quite interesting…. A Mongoose on a lead? 🙂

See the main mammals page for Spain here.

Iberia Nature Forum

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Iberia Nature Forum: https://iberianatureforum.com/

Iberian red fox (Vulpes vulpes Silacea) Zorro

The Fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a globally widespread mammal of opportunistic behaviour. In Spain we have the subspecies Iberian red Fox (Vulpes vulpes Silacea) Zorro in Spanish which is slightly smaller than its northern European counterparts. Foxes, in general, have an ability to adapt to different habitats as well as varied food supplies. This canine hunter / scavenger stands around 35 to 45cm high at the shoulder with a body length of between 60 to 80cm and a tail or brush of on average 35cm.

Iberian Fox (Vulpes vulpes Silacea) Zorro in Spanish
Iberian Fox (Vulpes vulpes Silacea) Zorro in Spanish

The colouration can vary greatly from a strong red to a sandy brown or brindled coat. The under jaw and chest are white. Some have a dorsal black stripe which can also drop onto the shoulders in a cross shape. The tip of the tail can either be white or black. In some areas of Spain, fox coloration is often described as black or silvery black which is most unlike the traditional “Red” fox of the United Kindom. The males are generally heavier in build than females

Diet and habits

A Fox’s diet includes insects, earthworms, mice, voles, rabbits, birds and their eggs, amphibians, reptiles and a variety of fruit. (Contrary to popular belief their favorite food is not chicken from the local farmyard). They are also scavengers, eating carrion and sorting through waste left by humans. An adult fox will typically consume between 0.5 and 1kg of food per day. Normally hunting alone, they use a strong sense of smell and acute hearing. If encountering more food than they need, foxes will very often bury the excess in scrapes that they make in the ground.

Foxes are most active at dusk, extending into the night – especially if near to human populations. The fox is territorial with the size of area depending on availability of food. The territory is marked using scent glands, faeces and urine and may be as large as 50 km², though it is much smaller if food is abundant.

Iberian Fox (Vulpes vulpes Silacea) Zorro in Spanish
Iberian Fox (Vulpes vulpes Silacea) Zorro in Spanish

Faecal marking is often visible on paths, raised on stones, plants and especially on junctions. There is normally one main den but there may be several smaller dens through their territory for food storage and emergency cover.


Mating occurs during the winter, from December to February depending on latitude, with gestation taking around 52 days. They can be monogamous or polygamous. Generally 4 to 6 cubs are tended by the female in the den with the male providing food for them all. The cubs open their eyes within two weeks and will begin exploring at five weeks. At ten weeks old they are fully weaned and will disperse to create their own territories in the autumn. The young Foxes are sexually mature at 10 months and can live for around 5 to 7 years.

Predators of the Iberian red fox (Vulpes vulpes Silacea) Zorro

The major predators of Foxes in Iberia are Golden eagle, Wolf, Lynx and of course Man. (The latter seems to have an unhealthy hatred for this creature for some reason). Both the Iberian Lynx and the Iberian Wolf will actively seek, hunt, attack and kill a fox simply to reduce rival predator numbers within their territory.

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European bison – Bison bonasus – Bisonte europeo

The European bison – Bison bonasus – Bisonte europeo is also known as the wisent is one of two extant species of bison, alongside the American bison. The European bison is the heaviest wild land animal in Europe and individuals in the past may have been even larger than modern animals.

Hunted to almost extinction across Europe in the early twentieth century with just a few remaining individuals in the Białowieża Forest (on the Belarus–Poland border), the European bison recovery is quite an incredible success story. By the end of the 20th century (In 1996), the International Union for Conservation of Nature re-classified the European bison as an endangered species, no longer extinct in the wild. Its status has improved even further since then, changing to vulnerable and later to near threatened.

Read more at wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_bison

Conservationists argue that mammals like European bison play a significant role in shaping ecosystems. Much as American bison have played a role in grassland management on Nature Conservancy preserves in North America, European bison are now shaping forests and open areas in Germany, France, Spain and other countries.

There is a fantastic article entitled “The Remarkable Story of How the Bison Returned to Europe” here: https://blog.nature.org/science/2017/08/22/remarkable-story-how-bison-returned-europe/

By the 20th century, against long odds, two populations still survived. One, in the remote Northern Caucasus Mountains of Russia, contained only a small number of individuals. A more viable population survived in Poland’s Białowieża Forest, a long-time protected reserve. In the mid-16th century, a Polish king instituted the death penalty for poaching a bison; restrictive laws remained in place with succeeding rulers.

The True Nature Foundation Bison project

In Spain they can be seen at the Valle del Bisonte (Bison Valley), Montaña de Riaño in the Picos de Europa.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the European bison was on the edge of extinction. All living European bison descend from 12 individuals, who were the only ones remaining in captivity. In Spain, the northern mountains ranges were bison habitat up to 12,000 years ago. The plight of the European bison is a signal to the impact that humankind is having on many thousands of other species across the planet. The project hopes that, by creating new herds, more genetic resiliency and diversity will develop over time.

Bison calf born in June 2020 at the Valle del Bisonte (Bison Valley), Montaña de Riaño in the Picos de Europa
Bison calf born in June 2020 at the Valle del Bisonte (Bison Valley), Montaña de Riaño in the Picos de Europa

After 15,000 years, European bison, wild pottoka horses and other megafauna return to long-lost habitat in the Cantabrian Mountains. Goal of the project is ecological restoration to promote climate change resilience, biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of the forest landscape under global change. The project develops job and income generation opportunities that support the rural economy – as drivers for sustainable development.

The reintroduced European bison are the main attraction in the area of the Picos de Europa along with other iconic species such as the indigenous wild Pottoka horses, Water buffalo, Cantabrian bear, Iberian wolf, and large herbivores.

See more here: https://truenaturefoundation.org/project/valle-del-bisonte-spain/

European bison re introduction in Andalucia

Recently (2020) a new project to reintroduce the European bison to Andalucia was created located in the Sierra de Andujar natural park here is a video (in spanish) about it:

Join in with the conversation about the European bison over at the Iberia Nature forum: https://iberianatureforum.com/forums/topic/european-bison-reintroduction-in-andalucia/

Otter – Lutra lutra -Nutria Europea.

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The Otter – Lutra lutra – Nutria Europea. A carnivorous mammal in the subfamily Lutrinae. They are semiaquatic in Spain with diets based mostly on fish and invertebrates.

Although most European otters tend to prey primarily on fish, some have developed a taste for frogs and toads—a food choice that requires some deft preparation. Because common toads (Bufo bufo) have toxins in both their skin and the glands on either side near the front of their bodies, these resourceful otters use their sharp teeth to remove the skin from the back half of the toads and then eat just the hind legs. While common frogs (Rana rana) don’t have toxic skin or glands, most otters appear to not know the difference, and generally play it safe by following the same food-prep routine they use on toads.

There is a brilliant photo of an otter with a frog on the website link below. https://www.biographic.com/frog-leg-feast/

A slow population recovery.

With the creation of many natural and national parks in Spain, and other environmental awareness campaigns, the otter population seems to have increased, certainly in Andalusia, over the past 20 years. However, this recovery has been relatively slow, and in some areas the impact of human activities still prevents the species, from expanding into new territory.

There is also a concern that river water quality is still declining in many areas due to overuse of agricultural and home use chemicals. Such as household cleaning products pesticides and herbicides. The otter relies on a clean and healthy river environment for its food supply, so the consequences of pollution are devastating for this mammal.

Signs, smells and behaviour.

You are most likely to smell an otter living in an area well before you see one. The feces (spraints) are typically identified by their distinctive aroma, the smell of which has been described as ranging from freshly cut grass to putrefied stinking fish. The holt is built under a fallen tree, root or rocky outcrop and lined with grasses, moss and leaves.

Otter spraint left on a rock
Images of otter spraint left on a rock in a mostly dry riverbed and on the right a beautiful dragonfly.

Sexual maturity of the European otter is reached at around two years of age and males at approximately three years. The gestation period in otters is about 60 to 86 days. The newborn pup is cared for by both parents. After one month the pup starts exploring outside of the holt, and after about two months is able to swim without the aid of its parents. The pup lives with its family for approximately one year and they can have a lifespan of around 16.

Otters are mischievous by nature and can often be seen enjoying the company of other family members, playing and chasing each other in the water.

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The Red Deer

  • Spanish: Ciervo
  • Scientific: Cervus elaphus hispanicus
  • English: Red Deer
  • French: Cerf élaphe
  • German: Rothirsch
  • Italian: Cervo nobile
  • Portugese: Veado


The red deer is A large mammal with a robust body, fine head and long legs. The males measure around 90 – 120cm (3ft-3’11”) at the shoulder and the females 90 – 110cm (3ft-3’7”). Only the males have antlers and these are replaced each year. Their general body colour is brown with greyish tones, the belly and beneath their short tail is much paler.

The Red deer has a fragmented distribution throughout much of Europe, Asia and North America. The 27 or so subspecies have each developed different characteristics. In Iberia there is a subspecies, Cervus elaphus hispanicus, which has a smaller head, more grey colouring and finer dimensions than in Central European variations.

Continue reading The Red Deer