Fuerteventura‘s beach, known by various names such as Bajo de la Burra, Las Cotufas, Las Palomitas, and popularly referred to as ‘Popcorn Beach’ by the British, is undeniably the most photographed beach in the Canary Islands. Ironically, this popularity has put it at risk due to the coveted rhodoliths that adorn its shores. These distinctive white rhodoliths, a type of seaweed, are both an attraction and a target for those who may not realize that the best way to appreciate a landscape is to preserve it. In Fuerteventura, the significance of this delicate balance is well understood.
Rhodoliths, also known as “popcorn” or “cotufas,” are coralline algae that thrive on the northern beaches of Fuerteventura, with a concentration of over six million specimens. An international team of researchers conducted a groundbreaking study on their composition last year, highlighting the urgent need to protect them as they play a vital role in biodiversity.
This study, involving scientists from esteemed institutions like the Portuguese Hydrographic Institute, Natural History Museums of Stuttgart and Tenerife, University of La Laguna, University of the Azores, Williams College in Boston, and the Spanish Geological and Mining Institute (IGME-CSIC), was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. Esther Martín-González, curator of Palaeontology and Geology at the Museum of Nature and Archaeology of Tenerife, emphasized that this research advances our understanding of rhodoliths in the Canary Islands and establishes a foundation for future exploration, as these habitats are pivotal in island environments.
Rhodoliths and their beds are independent nodules composed of coralline red algae (Rhodophyta) that serve as ecosystem engineers, creating structurally complex habitats hosting a diverse array of fauna and flora. These beds offer protection to organisms from predators, and commercially valuable species like fish, crustaceans, and mollusks thrive within these ecosystems.
These rhodoliths are indispensable for establishing and sustaining biodiversity, thereby contributing significantly to vital ecosystem functions. However, despite their resilience to various environmental disturbances, they remain vulnerable to storms, harvesting, ocean acidification, and global warming. Rhodolith beds are typically found at depths of 20 to 100 meters across most of the Canary Islands.
THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BEACH IN THE CANARY ISLANDS, VICTIM OF CARELESSNESS
Fuerteventura’s north coast witnesses the shallowest development of rhodoliths, emerging from detrital beds at a depth of around two meters, stretching between Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, and the islet of Lobos. Their nodules can reach diameters of up to 20 centimeters. While limited research on living rhodoliths has been conducted in the Canary Islands, this study aims to analyze the species composition of rhodoliths along the north coast of Fuerteventura and enhance our understanding of their distribution in different environments.
The significance of preserving rhodoliths as biodiversity hotspots cannot be overstated, and it calls for a collective effort to safeguard these invaluable biological resources. Despite existing regulations for their protection, the plundering of rhodoliths on Fuerteventura’s beaches remains a pressing issue. Both tourists and residents often remove significant quantities of rhodoliths, posing a direct threat to these ecosystems, as the remnants of deceased rhodoliths form an integral part of the sediments comprising the island’s beaches today.
Local authorities have been actively working to combat this trend and strive to return rhodoliths to their original locations as much as possible. Nevertheless, looting persists as a significant challenge, prompting the need for additional protective measures.
Presently, only a quarter of the rhodoliths remain intact, with 65% being broken or weathered, and at least 10% of the surface is covered in basalt pebbles.
Researchers believe that the rhodoliths were transported ashore by northwest storm surges due to their size and high degree of breakage. However, further field studies are required to understand the in situ formation of rhodolith beds and the associated species.