Animals and fauna of Crete
The size of Crete at 8,336 square kilometres and the fact that it is
isolated from the rest of mainland Europe, Asia and Africa, plus the
diversity of its terrain enables the island to support a wide diversity of
wildlife including a large number of species of bat, which inhabit the
thousands of caves on the island as well as the isolated forests and
abandoned farmhouses throughout the island. There are also many kinds of
migrating birds which rest on the island before heading on southwards and,
in the mountainous regions, the Golden Eagle and the Griffon Vulture.
Lake Agia is home to many species of birdlife, indigenous and visiting, and often there are species of heron present. There are some intriguing reptiles and amphibians, but only about 14 species are known to occur naturally. This is probably due to prolonged isolation from other continents. Amongst these are the Cretan frog and the Cretan Wall Lizard. Finally, Crete has a multiplicity of mammal life including many types of small field and woodland mammals such as rabbits, mice and other rodents, badgers, hedgehogs, shrews, weasels and martens. However, Crete also has some animals that are rare to other Mediterranean regions and some which are unique to the island itself.
Among these unique species is the proud Cretan ibex or wild goat Agrimi or "Kri Kri". These animals exist now only in a few isolated areas of the island, including the Samaria National Park. Archaeological excavations on the island have discovered many wall paintings depicting the "kri kri" which seems to support the view that it was worshiped during antiquity. Breeding programmes have now been established on nearby islands of Crete in an effort to increase their population.
A second mammal, extremely rare and unique to Crete is the "fourogatos" or Cretan wildcat. It is the only wild cat on the island and is limited to a small area in the region of the White Mountains and its surrounding sub-alpine areas. It is larger than ordinary cats with males growing to a body length of 50cm and a tail length of 30cm. Its tail is bushier at the tip and narrower at its base than the domestic cat. Its coat is light brown with dark markings and the tail has black bands and a black tip. The fourogatos was thought for many years to be extinct until one was trapped in the Amari valley in 1996. Shortly after this a shepherd discovered a lair containing five kittens in the forest at Rouvas. Nevertheless, it is a highly endangered species, mainly due to the use of pesticides and toxic materials used to destroy other mammals.
Two other mammals of interest in Crete are the Cretan Hound or Cretan Tracer and the horse of Messara. The hound is the oldest breed of dog in Europe and its existence on Crete goes back 4,000 years. However, by the middle of the last century it was found that only a few pure bred animals remained. Fortunately, with this knowledge, attempts were made to save the breed and the situation is now much more promising for the Cretan Hound.
The Cretan horse or horse of Messara, like the Cretan Hound, is the oldest breed of horse in Europe and is a domestic horse breed that is native to the island, not existing anywhere else in the world. Although smaller than the common horse it is a hardy little fellow known for its strength and stamina, making it an ideal animal for use in the rugged, harsh and inaccessible parts of the island. Its key feature is its precise pacing gait which makes it more comfortable to ride. Excavations discovered a skeleton of the animal that dates back to 1700BC thus establishing the fact that it has existed in Crete since at least before the Minoan period. Its image has been found on coins dating from the Minoan era and also in wall paintings and sculptures. It is thought to have been brought to Crete from Egypt although other sources believe it is a descendant of the Tarpon breed in Russia.
In the early 1990s it was feared that this remarkable breed was in danger of becoming extinct with an estimated population of only 80 animals. Today, however, the future for the Cretan horse looks more hopeful with many Cretans owning them, primarily for equestrian competitions on the island, with one of the most famous contest held in spring and autumn on the Stramboulas Plateau.
Finally, Greece hosts the largest nesting population of Mediterranean Loggerhead Sea Turtles in a number of locations including Crete. The sea turtle spends most of its life at sea but every summer, between the months of June and August, adult females return to the beaches where they were hatched. How they navigate their way through the ocean, to the very same beach they started life on, is one of nature"s most remarkable secrets. They make nests and lay their eggs on several beaches around Crete and the 11km stretch of beach from Rethymnon Town to Skaleta is one of them.
The females come ashore at night and hollow out a body pit by sweeping the dry sand away before digging an egg pit with their flippers. Each female will lay around 120 eggs, each the size and shape of a ping-pong ball. She then covers the eggs by pressing down the loose sand with her rear flippers and throws dry sand over the area to conceal the nest before she returns to the sea. Generally loggerheads nest only every two to three years. The eggs incubate in the warm sand and hatch in seven to ten weeks. The hatchlings struggle to the surface, sometimes taking two or three days to emerge because oxygen is scarce. As they near the surface they stop and wait for the sand to cool in the night or the early morning, before breaking out 50 at a time and dashing towards the sea, guided by the moonlight on the water.
The main threat to nesting turtles is tourism. The quiet, secluded places of 20 years ago are now developed with hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars encroaching onto the beach. The light and the noise from these places disorient adult females and their hatchlings trying to find the sea. Furthermore, beach furniture, including umbrellas and loungers, pose a risk because they deter adult females from nesting and the hatchlings can get caught up in the obstructions. In addition, setting up umbrellas can reduce the sand temperature and so affect egg incubation. Beach cleaning, if not monitored, can be devastating because of the use of heavy vehicles which rake and churn up the nests or leave deep tyre ruts which hinder or trap hatchlings.
Consequently, the Loggerhead Sea Turtle is a protected species. Their breeding sites are monitored and protected by Archeon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece which was founded in 1983 with the aim to protect turtles and their habitat through field work, management and awareness programmes. Volunteers from all over the world spend a minimum of 28 days during the nesting season working for Archelon at their own expense to ensure the turtles are given a chance in life. There are kiosks around the harbour at Chania and Rethymno which aim to educate visitors to Crete about the turtles. Archelon also presents a slide show at various hotels during the summer season.
Crete has no dangerous mammals or snakes and the Ancient Greeks credited this to the labours of Hercules who honoured the birthplace of Zeus by eradicating all harmful or poisonous animals. Cretans also considered that the island was blessed by the Apostle Paul who cleared it of all dangerous animals after having lived in Crete for two years. However, to catch sight of some of the animals who do live on the island, patience or luck is required. The size and isolation of parts of Crete allow its natural wildlife to exist in relative peace, unaffected by the traffic and centres of population.