Guide to the Flora and Fauna in the Ria Formosa

Ria Formosa Natural Park is an area of incredible biodiversity, making it a spot of international natural importance. Often touted as one of the 7 natural wonders of Portugal, this precious ecosystem delights visitors from around the world.

The entire team here at Lands knows that the Ria Formosa is a wonderful place to explore, and we hope that this guide will encourage you to visit the southeast Algarve. If this guide inspires you, check out our Ria Formosa Boat Trips and our various other Faro Activities and Trips to see it for yourself. 

It is so important to protect the natural treasures in Ria Formosa, which is why Lands prides itself on helping people to experience the wonder of the area whilst contributing zero environmental impact. 

Find out more about how we practice eco-friendly, sustainable travel in the Algarve ahead of your visit to our beautiful part of the world.

But what exactly are the delights of nature here? What are we striving to protect? This is our easy, accessible guide to the flora and fauna in the Ria Formosa.

Flora in Ria Formosa

Sand Dunes on the Islands of Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Sand Dunes on the Islands of Ria Formosa, Faro

The Ria Formosa is made up of several different types of habitat: barrier islands, salt marshes, sandbanks, mudflats, dunes, freshwater ponds, brackish water lagoons, rivers, forests, and agricultural areas — all of which allow for the incredible biodiversity of the region. 

These clearly differentiated habitats give good clues as to the kind of vegetation you can find in the park, which is many and varied. 

One of the best ways to explore these habitats is on a Guided Walking Tour of Ria Formosa. At Lands, we can take you on some wonderful hikes; our professional guides will be able to point out and explain every plant or animal you see along the way.

Curry plant Helichrysum italicum in Ria Formosa, Faro - AlgarveCurry plant Helichrysum italicum in Ria Formosa, Faro

Flowers You Can See in Ria Formosa

Among the almost 50 species of plants that thrive in the dunes, you are likely to find Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum), Cottonweed (Otanthus maritimus), and Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria). 

In stable sand dunes, you can also see species like Curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), Spiny thrift (Armeria pungens) and also Sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum).

Spiny Thrift Armeria pungens in Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Spiny thrift Armeria pungens in Ria Formosa, Faro

Despite the soaring temperatures of summer, the pure-white flowers of the Sea daffodil are one of the few that bloom late Summer in the Mediterranean. Keep your eyes peeled for these enduring plants.

Sea Daffodil Pancratium maritimum in Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Sea daffodil Pancratium maritimum in Ria Formosa, Faro – Algarve

The Ria Formosa’s Marshlands

The marshes are areas of incredible vegetation that tolerate the salinity of the seawater that washes over them twice a day. Marshland vegetation can capture and retain pollutants like herbicides, pesticides and heavy metals, and this vegetation acts as a filter.

Since they are hugely productive, the marshes are among the most biodiverse areas on the planet. This is why it is critical to protect these incredible aquatic environments. 

Marshes are full of species like Small cordgrass (Spartina maritima), and Salicornia (Salicornia ramosissima). The latter is used in gourmet cuisine because of their salty taste and crispy texture.

You can also find Grand statice (Limoniastrum monopetalum) decorating the marshes with its summer-blooming flowers, in varying, colourful shades of pink, purple, lavender, and violet.

Grand statice Limoniastrum monopetalum in Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Grand statice Limoniastrum monopetalum in Ria Formosa, Faro

It’s also in the marshland areas that you can find excellent displays of the Yellow Broomrape (Cystanche phelypaea). These fascinating, parasitic plants with bright yellow flowers are found only in southern Portugal and southern Spain, on Crete, and in a few parts of the extreme eastern Mediterranean.

Thymus lotocephalus in Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Yellow Broomrape Cystanche phelypaea in Ria Formosa, Faro

In the forested areas of the park, you’ll find Maritime pine (Pinus pinaster) and Umbrella or (Stone) pine tree (Pinus pinea). Beneath you can see the typical Mediterranean scrubland, where Gorse (Ulex argenteus or Stauracanthus boivinii) and fragrant Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), French lavender (Lavandula stoechas) occur.

Here you can also find some endemic plants to the Algarve like the rare Linaria algarviana, Thymus lotocephalus, a type of thyme, and Tuberaria major, a member of the rockrose family with yellow blossom.

Thymus lotocephalus in Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Thymus lotocephalus in Ria Formosa, Faro

For the sharp-eyed botanists among you, you will be delighted by the Mirror Orchid (Ophrys speculum) and Bumblebee Orchid (Ophrys bombyflora) that flower around mid-April. Other floral highlights include Fritillaria lusitanica and Sea lavender (Limonium algarvense), which is endemic to this region of Portugal.

Display of Mirror Orchid Ophrys speculum in Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Display of Mirror Orchid Ophrys speculum in Ria Formosa, Faro

Fauna in Ria Formosa

Purple Swamphen in Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Purple Swamphen in Ria Formosa, Faro

Faro and the Ria Formosa are particularly well known for their bird population. When you visit, you shouldn’t miss out on the Ria Formosa Birdwatching Tour from Faro. This is one of the best ways to ensure you don’t miss the most special species unique to the area. 

You should also check out our Ultimate Birdwatching Guide, so you’re up to speed on our impressive bird population. Our eco-boat tours are also a great way to spot the birds of Ria Formosa. 

However, the Ria Formosa is not just for the birds. The Ria Formosa’s seagrass meadows are home to an endangered community of seahorses. This area was once home to one of the largest seahorse communities in the world. The two seahorses you can find in Ria Formosa are the Short-snouted seahorse Hippocampus hippocampus and Long-snouted seahorse Hippocampus guttulatus.

These populations have shrunk dramatically over the last 20 years. This was due to illegal fishing and the disappearing seagrass meadows. In 2020, two safe havens were created for the seahorses in Ria Formosa to slow the species’ decline.

Other animals that call the natural park their home include the shy and endangered Mediterranean chameleon and — perhaps more famously — the Portuguese water dog, which originated in this area.

Chameleon in Ria Formosa, Faro - Algarve
Chameleon in Ria Formosa, Faro

The shallow lagoons of the park are perfect nurseries for a variety of marine life in their early years, and you’ll find fish, crustaceans, and mollusks in abundance.

As far as mammals are concerned, the nature park is less significant, with only 34 recorded species. However, it is interesting to note the presence of animals such as otters (Lutra lutra), genets (Genetta genetta), badgers (Meles meles), and various types of bats that feed in the park.

This concludes our quick guide to some of the rich animal and plant life that can be found in the Ria Formosa. The place is unique and has to be explored in person to really be appreciated, so we hope to welcome you soon. 

So what are you waiting for? If any of our tours interest you, or if you have any questions please get in touch. We hope you’ll allow Lands to be part of your great adventures in Ria Formosa.

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