The flora of Crete
To get an idea of how rich the biodiversity of Crete is, just consider that Crete has almost as many species and subspecies of plants (about 1750) as the whole Britain (1450), even if it is 35 times smaller. This diversity is not only reflected in the total number of species but also in the number of endemic species, which grow only in Crete and nowhere else in the world. In Crete, there are about 160 endemic species and subspecies, which means that 9% of the plant species of Crete do not exist anywhere else in the world.
The Cretan flora has adapted itself so as to resist human interventions and especially the free grazing, which has been a traditional practice in Crete for thousands of years. The plants have developed ways to resist grazing, like thorns or bad taste. There no large forest areas, like for example in Macedonia or Epirus. This is partly because of the grazing and the climatic conditions. However, Crete has some of the rarest biotopes in Europe, like, for example, those of the palm trees (Phoenix theophrasti).
There are some biotopes, which, despite being very small - like, for example, the seasonal lake of Omalos - have amazing biodiversity. The forest species that prevail on the island are the pine tree (Pinus spp) and the cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), which are coniferous species with large adaptability to extreme conditions, and the evergreen maple-trees (Acer sempervirens). There are also other species, like the Zelkova abeliceae, which is one of the rarest trees in the world and grows almost exclusively in the White Mountains in small populations. The Cretan flora includes the Cretan ebony (Ebenus cretica), an impressive bush that is found only in Crete, the crocus of the Cretan mountains (Crocus oreocreticus), the ladania (Cistus creticus), the bush from which the rockrose is collected, the Cretan bell (Campanula cretica), a rare and very beautiful plant that is found only in the prefecture of Chania, the oleander (Nerium oleander), a very beautiful and impressive bush that often grows on street sides, many species of very beautiful orchids and a lot more.
The most characteristic plants of the island are the aromatic herbs that thrive here. Because of the essential oils that they contain, they are used as ingredients in cooking, in the preparation of teas and as medicines. The thyme (Corridothymus capitatus), the sage (Salvia futicosa), the mountain tea (Sideritis syriaca spp. syriaca), the wild marjoram (Origanum microphyllum), the dittany (Origanum dictamnus) are only some of the herbs that one can see and smell on the island.
Fauna of Crete
The Cretan fauna also includes thousands of species. It has been estimated that the endemic animal species are about 1.000, most of which are invertebrate, like spiders, insects etc. Many of them are endemic. A typical example are the spiders, the endemism of which is more than 40% on the island, which means that almost half of the spider species on Crete exist only on Crete and nowhere else in the world.
There are also about 130 different species of snails, half of which are endemic, while the Cretan shrew (Crocidura zimmermanni), a small insect-eating mammal that is similar to a mouse, is the only endemic mammal of Greece and lives only in the White mountains, Psiloritis and Dikti.
In Crete there are three species of frogs, the green toad (Bufo viridis), the tree frog (Hyla arborea) and the Cretan lake frog (Pelophylax cretensis), which is an endemic species. There are also eleven species of serpents, and one turtle species, the striped water turtle (Mauremys rivulata). There are also three species of slow-worms, four species of lizards, one of which is endemic, and four species of snakes, none of which is dangerous for humans.
There are also 17 species of bats, like the dwarf bat of Hanak (Pipistrellus hanaki), which is abundant in the gorge of Samaria and is one of the smallest mammals of the planet, 7 species of mice, 2 rabbit species (the hare of Crete and the wild rabbit) and 5 carnivorous species, the most famous of which is the wild cat of Crete (Felis sylvestris cretensis), a species with very small populations that was believed to have been extinct, until one individual was found in 1997.
Maybe the most well-known mammal is the wild goat (Capra aegagrus cretica), which used to live in all the mountains of Crete until the early 20th century. Today, however, after the use of fire guns became more widespread, their habitat has been confined to the White Mountains and it is endangered by hybridisation with domestic goats and by human interventions that have fragmented its habitat. It is threatened with extinction and measures for its protection and the recovery of its population have to be taken. The Samaria Gorge has to be declared a protected area. This species lives in the high and mountainous areas of the White Mountains. It feeds on plants and it is very skilled at moving in steep areas. It has very acute senses. One of its most impressive characteristics is that the males have very strong horns that can reach up to one meter in length.
As Crete is a station during the migration of birds, one can observe about 350 species of birds. More than 80 of these species are reproduced in Crete, like the “kokkalas” bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), which has in Crete the only reproductive population in the Balkans. This species, which is one of the rarest birds of prey in Europe, lives exclusively in mountainous ecosystems and feeds almost exclusively on bones. Moreover, the largest numbers of vultures (Gyps fulvus) exist here.
Other species of birds one can find in Crete are for example the little egret (Egretta garzetta), the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), the island partridge (Alectoris chukar), the raven (Corvus corax), the goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), the bee-eater (Merops apiaster) and the white owl (Tyto alba).
The Cicada. Greece’s summertime soundtrack. The large and harmless insects are all over Crete as well, mostly in olive groves, but their characteristic song will tell you they are always nearby. After mating, the female cuts slits into the bark of a twig, and into these she deposits her eggs. When the eggs hatch, the newly hatched nymphs drop to the ground, where they burrow until late spring.