Sand dune - Country Report, Spain

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This article on the sand dunes of Spain, is a revised country report from the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' (Doody ed. 1991) [1]. The 1991 inventory was prepared under the umbrella of the European Union for Dune Conservation [EUDC]. The original inventory was presented to the European Coastal Conservation Conference, held in the Netherlands in November 1991. It attempted to provide a description of the sand dune vegetation, sites and conservation issues throughout Europe including Scandinavia, the Atlantic coast and in the Mediterranean.

An overview article on the distribution of European sand dunes provides links to the other European country reports. These represent chapters from updated individual country reports included in the revised, 2nd Edition of the 'Sand Dune Inventory of Europe' prepared for the International Sand Dune Conference “Changing Perspectives in Coastal Dune Management”, held from the 31st March - 3rd April 2008, in Liverpool, UK (Doody ed. 2008)[2].

This version has been substantially revised

Status: Original authors Barbara van Agt & Robert Tekke, original text; revised 2014, Carlos Ley, Vega de Seoane and Iván A. Sánchez


The Spanish coastline, the Balearic and Canary islands included, is about 6,145 km. The Peninsula coast can be divided into four major regions. The northern Atlantic coast (2,012 km) which consists mainly of cliffs and river mouths with bays and some small sand dune sites; The southern Atlantic coast (949 km) is composed predominantly of sandy shores and dunes; The Mediterranean coast (1,063 km) has rocky shores and coastal plains with sandy and pebble beaches and a small number of dune systems. The Balearic Islands coasts (1,186 km coast) mainly consist of cliffs, bays and sandy beaches with some Holocene and Pleistocene dunes. The Canary Islands (1,477 km coast) are of volcanic origin, but include a number of dune systems.

Distribution and type of dune

Northern Atlantic coast (N and NW Spain). In Spain the biggest dune fields are located close to the river mouths of the main rivers. In the northern Spanish coast there are many short but mighty rivers so that sand provision is abundant. When these sediments reach the sea they are transported through littoral drift along the Atlantic and Cantabric coasts. This sedimentary deposition is often increased by the high degree of soil erosion present in many parts of the northern coast, in many areas as a consequence of logging or withdrawal of Eucalyptus or Pinus plantations. This is currently happening in Galicia where the intricate coast line is broken with deep low inlets, called rías, capes and peninsulas. The high precipitation in inland Galicia together with the intense coastal currents provide the Galician coast with plenty of sand to form many sand dunes, 16 of them bigger than 20 hectares. Close to the border with Portugal the Miño river forms marshes and frequent sand deposits in continuity with the Mediterranean vegetation dominated by cork oak (Quercus suber). In some of the sand dunes the camariña (Corema album), shrub of the Empetraceae family, is abundant, as it happens in the Cies islands. On the Atlantic coast to the south there is important dune vegetation at la Lanzada and el Bao, in the istmus of O Grove peninsula, but one of the most important dune systems is in the Corrubedo Natural Park included in a complex and mature beach-lagoon system with different sub-environments including active and inactive dunes with lagoons, marshes and tide channels that harbours a rich vertebrate fauna. A bit more to the north the dunes and lagoon of the Louro area is the point where Galicia makes the important geographic littoral division between rías Bajas (low inlets) and rías Altas (high inlets). Here sand dunes are abundant like in the next bay to the north called Carnota, a massive dune of white fine sand that arcs its way around a large open bay. More to the north is the so called costa da morte (Coast of the Death) and here we find the Traba Natural Area that includes sand dunes at different stages of development including paleodunes covered with planted pine trees for protection. In the Insua bay sand dunes combined with coastal wetland form an interesting system with progressive change of different types of vegetation. This is also the case of the Natural Area of Baldaio, at the end of the costa da morte, with an extensive dune system that hosts several endemic plants like Silene littorea or Iberis procumbens. To the west in the, so called Ártabra Coast we find several important dune systems, more famous by its Ramsar declared lagoon, San Xurxo and Santa Comba, but the most extensive one is the Natural Area of Frouxeira that combined with the coastal lagoon is a SPA (Special Protection Area). Finally, in the northernmost headlands of the Iberian Peninsula is the ría de Ortigueira with protected wetlands and long sand dunes.

The Asturian Coast is geologically considered the northern border of the Cantabric Mountain Range that reaches the sea in flat surfaces that finish in cliffs of 20 to 120 meters high called rasas, that are specially notable to the west of the Nalón river. This geological structure in rasas does not provide a good environment for sand deposition so, opposite to the Galician coast there are a few massive sand dunes. However we can mention the dunes of El Espartal that in the past was a huge sand deposit penetrating up to one kilometre inland but the growth of the Salinas and Aviles cities have notably reduced its extension especially because sand nourishment has decreased due to dike construction, though it still includes good populations of Crucianella maritima. The fine grained sand dunes of Xagó has been quite damaged through sand extraction for building and is in sharp contrast with the coarse sand of the nearby beaches and sand deposits of Verdicio.

To the east of the Asturias coast lies the coast of Cantabria where there are many small moon shaped beaches but also three big sand dune fields like Liencres, Somo-Loredo-Puntal and Laredo-Regatón. The highly dynamic Liencres dunes are sand nurtured by the Pas river and are part of a Natural Park with a well preserved environment that allows to have a psammophilus vegetation which supports a varied fauna including the Seoane viper (Vipera seoani) and a diverse fauna of insects. In Somo-Loredo-Puntal there is an immense sand tongue that has increased its natural value after restoration. Close to the Santoña salt marshes are the Laredo-Regatón sand dunes limited by the coastal currents. Though not as extensive as the aforementioned dunes it is necessary to mention Oyambre as one of the best preserved dune system in Cantabria.

In the Basque country, cliffs and rocky outcrops are so frequent that sand beaches and dunes have often little space to develop. In this part of the littoral rivers are often boxed within the Cretacic and often karstic rocks in a South to North circulation. In some places there are small inlets, or rías, some of them experiencing intense sedimentations processes like the ría del Bidasoa or the ría de Gernika that produce sand dunes on the river mouth, such as the Laida dunes and beaches. In other cases dune formation is difficult, not because of lack of sediments but because of the rocky surroundings like in the case of the Lea river mouth though in other dunes, like in Laga, the sand is coarser and scarce so that the dunes have difficulties to increase its volume. Perhaps the most important dune systems of the Basque coast in the past were La Concha in San Sebastian and Zarautz, but in both cases the cities took over most of the place corresponding to the sand dunes transforming them into urban beaches.

Western Andalucía on the southern Atlantic coast (SW Spain). The current hydrodynamic setting of this wave dominated coast denotes that wind provenance from the north acts more time than those from the southwest, which form waves and a littoral drift that goes from west eastwards. This together with the high wind of these regions has generated the most extensive dune systems, barrier islands and spits of the Iberian Peninsula. The main rivers that provide sand to the coast are the Guadiana, Guadalquivir and the Tinto-Odiel, though the sediment provision from the rivers is mainly seasonal.

Close to the border with Portugal the sands brought by the Guadiana river feed the isla Cristina and Punta del Moral sand dunes that continue inland with salt marshes. To the east, in the Piedras river there is a long sand spit, named El Rompido, which hosts extensive sand dune formations with a high naturalistic value because it is the breeding and feeding place of an important number of birds, specially waders. After El Rompido the enebrales de Punta Umbria is a two kilometres long coastal area of high ecological value because there is one of the few mixed woodlands over well preserved tertiary dune of Common Spanish Juniper (Juniperus phoenicea) with Tamarix canariensis and Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera) that remain anywhere on the Andalusia coast. The Odiel and Tinto rivers that surround the city of Huelva have the particularity of meeting just by the sea and form an important wetland that takes part of the sediments and makes a progressive and interesting transition with the sand dunes of the sand deposits of the Huelva harbor dyke that provide a breeding habitat for some waders. The coast to the east forms one of the most important dune systems of sand dunes in Europe, a great part of it integrated in the Donaña Natural and National Park. Here several ecosystems like scrublands, wetlands and dune fields mix progressively in a unique natural environment. In the Doñana's shifting dune system the dunes run inland from the coast forming, growing, moving and transforming in a highly dynamic system. The sand bars, known as “trenes de dunas” move forward steadily destroying the vegetation that they cover, though some juniper and pine trees are well adapted to survive in the so called “corrales” or interdune area when the dune allows for some branches to remain above the sand and to grow again when the dune has passed over. However many pines succumb to the sands and are unable to make it forming the “Doñana crosses” that are the standing trunks and branches of the dead pines.

From the Guadalquivir river mouth to the southeast the coast is composed of sand deposits but mostly stabilized tertiary dunes, the most important dune system being the one on the Monumento Natural Corrales de Rota. Further to the east the Dunas de San Antón, in the Cadiz bay, as other dunes in the Cadiz region, are mainly fossil dunes stabilized with a vegetation dominated by pine trees (Pinus pinea), Retama monosperma and Pistacia lentiscus with the presence of chameleons (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) and in this case are well integrated with the urban environment of El Puerto de Santa María. Other important dunes to the east are Cortadura - El Chato, Castillo and the ones around Sancti-Petri. The sand dunes around Trafalgar that include Zahora and Caños de Meca are quite extensive and intermingle with marshes and dune slack wetlands where sedges communities are quite abundant. These dunes have a natural continuity with the Barbate dunes and the clay-sandstone cliffs covered with pines and large fruited juniper (Juniperus macrocarpa) in one of its best populations and other woody vegetation well adapted to the sandy substrate; an environment rich in bird fauna. Though less extensive, this structure of sand deposits with a background of pine dominated forest continues to the southeast and is specially remarkable in the Valdevaqueros bay and to a lesser extend in the Bolonia bay both transgressive dune fields placed in a high wind area with a very intensive dynamic of the sand that, as in Doñana, sometimes cover the pine trees from behind. Valdevaqueros finds its natural continuity with Los Lances dunes and beaches that finish in the village of Tarifa just where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean.

Mediterranean coast

By comparison, the dune systems of the Mediterranean coast are smaller and more scattered than those on the Atlantic coast. Tourism is still a threat for many of the Mediterranean dune systems, the construction of dykes and harbors hampers the sand movement along the coast and rivers provide very little new sediment to the sea because a great deal of the water is taken up for agriculture or human consumption before it reaches the sea. In the Spanish Mediterranean coast beach-rocks are particularly frequent; the best known ones are the Arenales del Sol in Alicante and the area around Cabo Cope and Cal Blanc in Murcia forming eolianites, in which the bioclastic materials are compacted.

The coast in Catalonia shows a great ecological and morphological diversity. Close to the border with France the coast is rather rocky with small beaches and few dunes and it is not until the Parque Natural Aiguamolls de l’Empordà and the surrounding area in the Roses bay that we find better formed and more extensive dune field that make a progressive and interesting transition with the wetland from behind. In the Montfrí calcareous system there is an interesting group of fossil dunes reaching 100 meters and on the Pals beach the dune system was much more extensive in the past but, house building a golf course has reduced its surface. In the last part of the “Costa Brava” there are many small beaches but, few are able to develop dune systems. In the Barcelona region some dune systems are still located in the Llobregat Natural Reserve, and in Tarragona the best dune systems are located in the Ebro deltaic system, a well preserved Natural Park where human activity, such as rice crops, is combined with natural conservation. Another remarkable place is Torredembarra where the dunes intermingle with the wetlands inland.

In the Valencia littoral urbanization is widespread and from the Ebro delta to the San Antonio Cape the sedimentary process is in regression because rivers provide very little sand. However there are numerous littoral wetlands, here called marjales, The Albufera of Valencia being the largest one that still keeps some areas with sand dunes, but the best dunes are part of the Devesa and El Saler system. More to the south and around Elche the occasional but abundant sediments from the Agua Amarga y Las Ovejas river valleys increase the north to south littoral drift so that there are several sand dune systems. These include The Natural Area of the saltpans and sand dunes of Altet that host a series of fixed and mobile dunes, locally named dunas del Sol (Dunes of the Sun) and the Carabassí where the Eurasian Stone-curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus) is quite frequent. The Santa Pola salt pans include some sand dunes in the seafront that give way to the enormous windswept dune field of Guardamar that surrounds the Segura rivermouth. Actually Guardamar means sand river and in the past the sand movements partly covered the nearby populations so forestation works were carried out with several non-native trees including pines, eucalyptus, palms and cypresses, but other parts of the dunes include the native sand dune vegetation. Close to Torrevieja, in the natural site of Molino del Agua (Water Mill) some dune fields develop in which terrestrial mollusks belonging to Theba, Trochoidea and Cochlicella are very well represented.

The Murcia coast includes some of the best preserved stretches of coasts in the Spanish Mediterranean but also some of the most notable urban spreading like the one in the Mar Menor (Minor Sea). In the northern part of the region we find the San Pedro del Pinatar salt pans and sand deposits. These dunes include some of the best preserved dune slacks with natural wetlands. The tertiary dunes, in which chameleons are abundant, are covered mainly with pine trees, but recently there have been initiatives to make a reforestation with native juniper trees. Also the Calblanque dunes develop in a rather arid but well preserved environment in direct continuity with the natural area of the Mediterranean forest inland. In Andalucía there is a great variation in the precipitation, from nearly 200 millimetres a year in the east to the 800 mm that normally falls in the Gibraltar Straight. In the Almería region the Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park is Andalucia's largest coastal protected area, a well preserved and peculiar landscape shaped by the Iberian Peninsula's largest volcanic rock formation and colonized by a very special vegetation adapted to the natural dryness of the area that contrast with the series of sand dune formations some of them lying against the cliffs and reaching a considerable height. These sand dunes have continuity to the west with the Las Amoladeras-Torregarcía area. To the west the natural area of Punta Entinas and Punta Sabinar is in sharp contrast with the inland agriculture bellow plastic fields of Campo de Dalias. These extensive dune fields intermingle with wetlands of the dune slack, locally called charcones, and show well preserved vegetation especially in the tertiary dunes were Juniperus phoenicea and Pistacia lentiscus are some of the main woody plants that contribute to the stability of the dunes. The Granada coast is mostly dedicated to agriculture because of the sub-tropical climate and there are few and small dunes, but in the littoral of the Malaga region the problem for dune preservation is urban development that has left few dune systems. One of those are the Chapas sand dunes between the Los Ladrones Cape and the Real river, colonized by Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera) and Juniperus phoenicea scrub and the Artola dunes surrounded by urbanizations and roads. The well preserved Guadiaro rivermouth forms a sand bar and is an important source of sediments. In the Mediterranean part of the Cadiz region we find the Atunara and the Guadalquiton dunes, the latter quite degraded because of the sand extraction and the golf courses surrounding it.

The Balearic Islands

Geologically, the Balearic Islands are the natural continuity of the Betic mountain range coming from the Nao Cape. The archipelago is divided into two groups of islands with Mallorca and Menorca separated from the lesser Pitiusas islands. The extensive touristic attraction of the islands has been felt in the expansion of coastal buildings often too close to the sea shore, which is rocky in most of the islands but sand beaches and dunes are very common especially in Formentera and Mallorca. In the latter the most extensive sand dune fields are in the Es Trenc-Salobrar de Campor Natural Area where the inner dunes include a Mediterranean vegetation with Juniperus phoenicea, Pinus halepensis and Pistacia lentiscus but birdlife is also flourishing. These dunes find their natural continuity with the ones of Sa Rapita to the west. Traveling clockwise the northern coast is rather rocky because it corresponds with the Tramuntana range, but the west coast of Mallorca hosts some of the best sand dune systems that include Es Comú de Muro in the Albufera of Mallorca Natural Park and especially Sa Canova formed by the sand brought by the strong Tramuntana winds that make the dunes extend two kilometers inland. From the many small beaches, called calas, of the Mallorca coast only a few have sand dunes, especially those with the influence of the Tramuntana wind. The most remarkable of these Calas are Mesquida and Agulla, in the peninsula of Llevant, with the tertiary dunes including Juniperus phoenicea dominated vegetation. This is also the case of the Punta de N’Amer sand dunes on the south coast. In Menorca, the oldest island of the Balearic archipelago, the most extensive dune system is the one of Son Bou that also includes ruins of the Talaiotic culture. In Ibiza and Formentera the Posidonia oceanica in the seafloor is in a very good state, helping to preserve the sand balance of the dune systems. In Formentera there are very extensive sand dunes that include the area of Ses Salines and the Itsmo which have stabilized dunes with Mediterranean vegetation Pistacia lentiscus and Juniperus phoenicea are dominant plants that intermingle with other habitats like wetlands and marshes.

The Canary Islands

Because of its situation in the west of the Africa and close to the tropic of Cancer, the subtropical climate and, the coastal vegetation of the Canary islands is completely different from the vegetation of the rest of Spain and has a large number of endemic species. In the Canary Islands the most extensive dune systems are in the Corralejo Natural Park, in the north of the island of Fuerteventura, where the white sand originated through the decomposition of sea shells and other animals, giving it the name of the Canary Caribbean. The dunes are over a malpaís, the local name for rocks of an old volcanic flow, but completely covered by sand. The low annual precipitation of the island influences the scarce dune vegetation that shows a desert like appearance and includes a rich bird life adapted to this habitat such as Chlamydotis undulate. The other great dune system in the Canary Islands is the one of Maspalomas in Gran Canaria where there is halophytic vegetation and several wetlands, and in some places the giant Gran Canaria lizard (Gallotia stehlini) can be found. In Lanzarote, there are some dunes, especially in the Archipelago Chinijo, and in Tenerife the best preserved dune system is in the Montaña Roja (Red Mountain) with an special dune vegetation that includes Traganum moquinii, Euphorbia paralias and Ononis tournefortii.


Because of the subtropical climate and its situation west of the African continent and close to the tropic of Cancer, the coastal vegetation of the Canary islands is completely different from the vegetation of the rest of Spain and has a large number of endemic species. A description of the vegetation of the Canary Islands is therefore not included in the following summary.


The strandline is predominantly bare, but in the Mediterranean zone Cakile maritima ssp. aegyptiacaea, Salsola kali and Polygonum maritimum occur.


Embryonic dunes are covered with communities characterised by Elytrigia juncea, sometimes accompanied by Eryngium maritimum, Calystegia soldanella and Sporobolus pungens.

Yellow dune

The main species on the transverse dune ridges are Ammophila arenaria ssp. arundinacea, Otanthus maritimus, Medicago marina, Lotus creticus and Echinophora spinosa.

Dune grassland

These dunes (including grey and green dunes) are characterised by communities with Helichrysum stoechas, Crucianella maritima, Ononis natrix subsp. ramosissima, Teucrium polium, Malcolmia littorea and Thymus carnosus. On the northern Atlantic coast, the vegetation is characterised by species such as Helichrysum stoechas and Ephedra distachya.


Tall scrub mainly consists of Juniperus macrocarpa and J. phoenicea although in mobile dunes J. oxycedrusis is more abundant. Woodlands mainly consist of Phillyrea angustifolia, Rhamnus oleoides, Pistacia lentiscus, Corema album, Tamarix africana, T. gallica, Olea europaea var. sylvestris, different pine species (e.g. Pinus pinea) and oak species such as Quercus coccifera.

Important sites

Figure: Map of sand dune distribution and important sites in Spain.
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Map 2.gif
Figure: List of important sand dunes sites on Atlantic coast mainland Spain.

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Figure: List of important sand dunes sites on Mediterranean coast, Balearic and Canary Islands.

The list of important sites given opposite includes areas with more than 20ha of coastal dunes. Size includes other habitats. This list includes revised information on protected status.

KEY: LIC= Lugar de Interes Comunitario (EU Natura 2000 Network Site); An inventory of the sand dunes of the Valencian coast is included in a paper by Sanjaume & Pardo (1992)[3]. A further report provides detailed information on the Nueva Umbria Spit that lies within Site 09, Marismas del rio piedras y Flecha del Rompido (Gallego-Fernández et al. 2006)[4].

The above information is derived from a national inventory of sand dune sites.


Over two hundreds ago, industry and harbour activities have destroyed many dune systems, and recently, touristic impact, including direct urbanization and pedestrian pressure, are the cause of the loss of others. Nevertheless, some important dune systems remain. Many dune areas in Spain have been destroyed or altered in the last few decades, especially in the Mediterranean and southern Atlantic coastal zone. The main cause has been the increase in tourism, which resulted in the extraction of sand for construction activities and the building of hotels, houses and boulevards. Many dune areas have also been afforested with Pinus spp. or Eucalyptus spp. destroying most of the natural vegetation. Construction works, such as the building of harbours and the canalization of rivers, has restricted the sand supply to the beaches and as a consequence the dune areas have decreased through erosion of both beaches and dunes.

Since 1988 the Spanish Shores Act (Ley de Costas) has come into force. This law emphasizes provision for public access and promotes the protection of the coastal zone (up to a maximum of 500 metres, landward) against further destruction by building activities. This law has only just come into force and its effectiveness has not yet been completely established.

Original Contact: Prof. dr. M. Costa.

2008 Revision: Juan Diego López Giraldo,;

Dr. Juan B. Gallego-Fernández, Departamento de Biología Vegetal y Ecología. Universidad de Sevilla, Ap.1095 - 41080 Sevilla, España - Spain. Email:

Additional information

Corines Biotopes Project, 1991. European Communities. Brussels.

Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. 1988. Medio Ambiente en España. Monografías de la Dirección General de Medio Ambiente. Madrid.

Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. 1986. Ecosistemas vegetales del litoral mediterráneo espagñol. Monografías de la Dirección General de Medio Ambiente. Madrid.

Ministerio de Agricultura Pesca Y Alimentacion, Instituto Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza. 1990. Guia natural de las costas Españolas. Madrid.


  1. Doody, J.P., ed., 1991. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe. Peterborough, Joint Nature Conservation Committee/European Union for Coastal Conservation.
  2. Doody, J.P., ed. 2008. Sand Dune Inventory of Europe, 2nd Edition. National Coastal Consultants and EUCC - The Coastal Union, in association with the IGU Coastal Commission.
  3. Sanjaume, E. & Pardo, J., 1992. The dunes of the Valencian coast (Spain): past and present. Lewis, D., 1992. The sands of time: Cornwall's Hayle to Gwithian Towans. In: Coastal Dunes: Geomorphology, Ecology and Management, eds., R.W.G. Carter, T.G.F. Curtis & M.J. Sheehy-Skeffington, Proceedings of the Third European Dune Congress, Galway, Ireland, 17-21 June 1992, A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, 475-486.
  4. Gallego-Fernández, J.B., Muñoz Vallés, S., Dellafiore, C. 2006. Flora and vegetation on Nueva Umbría Spit, Lepe-Huelva. Lepe Council Ed., Lepe, 134 pp.

Other sources of published information:

Balada, R., 1985. Guide to the Ebro Delta. Parc Natural del delta de l’Ebre. Barcelona.

Carasco, C., 1984. El Parque Nacional de Doñana. Madrid.

Corines Biotopes Project, 1991. European Communities. Brussels.

Costa, M., 1986. La vegetacíon en el País Valenciano. Universitat de Valencía.

Escarra Esteve, A. et al., 1984. El medio y la biocenosis de los arenales costeros de la provincia de Alicante. Departamento de Ciencias Empresarialies y Recursos Naturales. Facultad de Ciencias de Alicante.

Géhu, J.M., 1985. European dune and shoreline vegetation. Council of Europe, nature and environment series no. 32. Strasbourg.

Klijn, J.A., 1990. Dune forming factors in a geographical context, in Th. W. Bakker et al. Dunes of the European coasts. Catena supplement, 18, Cremlingen-Destedt.

Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. 1988. Medio Ambiente en España. Monografías de la Dirección General de Medio Ambiente. Madrid.

Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo. 1986. Ecosistemas vegetales del litoral mediterráneo espagñol. Monografías de la Dirección General de Medio Ambiente. Madrid.

Ministerio de Agricultura Pesca Y Alimentacion, Instituto Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza. 1990. Guia natural de las costas Españolas. Madrid. Rivas Martinez, S. et al., 1980. Vegetación de Doñana. Facultad de Farmacia Universidad Complutense. Madrid.

Sanjaume, E., 1985. Las costas Valencianes, sedimentologia y morfologia. Universitat de Valencia.

See also

The main author of this article is Doody, Pat
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Doody, Pat (2019): Sand dune - Country Report, Spain. Available from,_Spain [accessed on 22-05-2024]