IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
By Nick Lloyd - Home - Contact

Bites and stings from animals in Spain

When I was eight years old I was bitten by an adder in a fern forest in Norfolk, England. Ever since I have been fascinated by the dangers lurking in the woods, rocks and the sea. And it's summer again, which is when most of us get bitten and stung, so here's a compendium of beasties in Spain out there wanting a piece of us.

Attacks by wolves and bears are of course extremely rare, though there was a case in May this year of a man who was seriously injured by a bear in Palencia. He was out mushroom picking and stumbled upon a female with its cubs. After being battered and left for dead, the man managed to save himself by tying a tourniquet above a deep gash in his leg. The last recorded death from a wolf was in 1973 when an wolf killed and devoured a 7-year old child in Galicia.

King Favila of Asturias, son of the legendary King Pelayo, was allegedly killed by a bear in Covadonga. The historical symbolism was not lost on Spanish republicans this year, when they paid homage to the ‘ regicide bear ' in a celebration held on the day of Felipe's and Leticia's bash, proclaiming:
‘If it is true that Covadonga and Pelayo are the cradle and the base of the current Spanish monarchy, as the Asturian monarchical tradition has it, then it must be no less true that Favila and the regicide bear are the starting point of Spanish republicanism ”, The act concluded by declaring the bear, “ the first Spanish republican ”.

King Favila of Asturias

There hasn't been a case of rabies among terrestrial mammals in mainland Spain since 1977, though are occasionally cases among bats. Ceuta and Melilla are an exception to this, with periodic cases particularly among dogs (e.g. 6 dogs and 1 horse in Melilla in 2002).

I imagine the number of feral dogs roaming the Spanish countryside must be responsible for a considerable number of attacks. According to one study, an incredible 87,000 (eighty-seven thousand) dogs were abandoned in 2003 in Spain. Apart from the evident cruelty to the dogs themselves, the presence of so many half-starved animals is a serious public health problem, and a threat to wildlife. Many of the sheep deaths blamed on wolves in northern Spain are in fact committed by packs of wild dogs, though in any area where wolves are prominent, the latter will systematically hunt and kill any stray dogs. A dog pack is no match.

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There are a total of 13 snakes present in Spain of which five are venomous. These are:

Seoane's viper (Vipera seoanei - víbora de Seoane)
Asp viper (Vipera aspis - víbora áspid)
Snub-nosed or Lataste's viper (Viborade lataste - vibora hocicuda)
False smooth snake (Macroprotodon cucullatus - culebra de cogulla)
Montpellier Snake (Malpolon monspessulanus - culebra bastarda or de Montpellier)

Seoane's viper lives in Galicia, León, the Cantabrian coastal strip (Cornisa Cantábrica) and the Basque Country. Confusingly some authors class Seoane's viper as a subspecies of the common viper or adder (Vipera berus - víbora europea) and, more confusingly still, some experts believe both exist in northern Spain.

The Asp Viper is restricted to the Pyrenees . Lataste's viper or the Snub-nosed viper is present throughout the rest of the Peninsula , though like most snakes, nowhere is it common. It takes it's name from the prominent horn between its eyes. It is grey, short (around 50cm) and is distinguished by its triangular head and the zigzag pattern on its back, although this varies amazingly from one individual to another. It lives in dry, rocky areas, away from human habitation,

The other two snakes are not so dangerous, but watch out for the 2-metre long Montpellier snake. It is blue with a white underbelly -don't go picking one up to check- and has prominent ridges over the eyes. However, the position of its venom fangs means that you would be unlucky to have poison injected into you, and if you are, its venom is much weaker then the vipers.

If you are bitten by a snake, remain calm and seek medical attention immediately. Bites only occur in the spring and summer as snakes hibernate. Of the estimated 50 snakebite deaths a year in Europe, only 3-6 occur in Spain, so don't worry too much. More people die from bee and wasp stings. The Canaries are snake-free, and only the milder False smooth snake is found in the Balearics, probably introduced there by the Romans. See Man survives viper bite

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There are more than 1,700 species of spider in Spain but only three are in way harmful to us. By far, the most dangerous is the black widow ( Latrodectus tredecimguttatus ) which gives a medically-complex and painful bite though it is not fatal. They are commonest in Valencia and Andalucía, and they are a problem in the greenhouse estates of Almeria .

The sting of the black widow, along with hysteria, was often responsible for the condition of tarantism, though at the time the much less-potent but more fearsome-looking true tarantula or wolf spider ( Lycosa tarantula ) was blamed. Wolf spiders are no relation to the much larger bird spiders of South America which have inherited the name, and their sting is weak. The hysteria began at some time during the Middle ages in Taranto in Southern Italy from where it spread out, reaching Spain in the 15th century. Victims were cured by making them dance to a frenzied music: the tarantela. As late 1875, the Spanish Royal Faculty of Medicine was recommending such antics. Other techniques for expelling the spider demon were less kind to the victim. In Corsica , the victim was placed in a sweltering oven, while on the Island of Hierro in the Canaries sufferers were treated with ‘internal doses of human excrement'.

Old world tarantulas (wolf spiders) are found in arid zones such as Los Monegros in Aragon. Their bite can be painful but not dangerous. Finally, the Mediterranean recluse spider ( Loxosceles rufescens ), though less toxic than its African recluse cousins, can give a painful nip. See also Land invertebrates in Spain


Mediterranean scorpion photo from here www.aragoneria.com/
The commonest scorpion in Spain is the Mediterranean scorpion (Buthus occitanus, escorpión amarillo or just alacrán) and though its North African cousin is more dangerous, it will still give you an extremely nasty sting. You might want to think about wearing boots and thick socks if you plan to hike in dry rocky areas (most of wild Spain) as they are by no means rare. The female will make a meal out of the male if food is short on the ground. The European black scorpion is also present in Spain, preferring more northerly and wetter areas. It's sting is short-lived. Scorpions have a bent for resting in your shoes, so be careful.

Other invertebrates

Pine processionary caterpillars
As every Spanish child knows, don't even think about handling the hairy caterpillars of the pine processionary moth ( procesionarias in Spanish). If they are touched, their hairs release an extremely nasty allergic skin reaction. Children have been known to go temporarily blind from rubbing their eyes after picking them up. They live in easily identifiable silvery nests in pine trees throughout Mediterranean Spain and get their name from their habit of forming head-to-tail trails as they move across land.

As everywhere else in Europe there is also the usual litany of smaller creatures hungry for a meal such as fleas ( pulgas ), ticks ( garrapatas ), bedbugs ( chinches ) and lice ( piojos ). Evidently also common are wasps ( avispas ), bees ( abejas ), bumblebees ( abejorros ) and horse flies ( tábanos ). In Spain there is supposed to be only one species of poisonous ant (Myrmica rubra laevinoides - hormiga roja chica), although its bite is not serious. However, last year in Barcelona there was an outbreak of stinging ants and they weren't red. I was stung by one last night in the bathroom so they're back. See also Land invertebrates in Spain

Mosquitoes are locally a problem, though they are no longer malarial . See article on Malaria in Spain here.

The first colony of tiger mosquitoes ( Aedes Albopictus – mosquito tigre ) has finally been detected in Spain, in Sant Cugat de Valles near Barcelona. Mosquito experts have been expecting the insect to reach here for some time. It has been spreading across Europe and reached Italy and France in 1990. The television and the press have reported dozens of people complaining of “intense” painful bites. Robert Eritja an entomologist with the Baix Llobregat Control Service explained that the insect poses no public health risk. He added that the tiger mosquito is extremely aggressive, attacks by day and lives in gardens where they breed in stagnant pools of water. It cannot be eradicated but it can be controlled”. See article on Tiger mosquitoes and the history of yellow fever and dengue in Spain

See also Black flies in the Ebro

There is also something hideously common called a Megarian Banded Centipede (Scolopendra cingulata – escolopendra). It's black and yellow, grows up to 9cm long and will give you a very nasty sting.

Photo of Megarian Banded Centipede kindly sent to me by Clive of Natural Images. Clive runs guided walking tours in the Sierra de Grazalema

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