Nature in the Balkans
The Dalmatian coast
Extending over 350 km along the Adriatic Sea, Dalmatia includes the littoral regions of Croatia and Montenegro. It is a contrasted region, where the coast and its numerous islands are dominated by the crests of the Dinaric Alps. It is home to a rich and original nature, unfortunately threatened in numerous places by pollution and a fast urbanization (Montenegro).
The Rumija range (Montenegro). Peaking at 1500 m over the city of Bar, this calcareous massif separates the southeast coast of Montenegro from the lake Skadar, located further north. This region is very rich in reptiles and amphibians.
Lake Skadar (Montenegro). This huge lake, split between Montenegro and Albania, is the biggest stretch of freshwater of the Balkans. It is a site of European importance for the reproduction of numerous species of birds. It also shelters many species of fishes, of which some are endemic. Protected by a status of National park in Montenegro, this lake is unfortunately polluted by numerous waste.
Krupa canyon (Croatia). This beautiful river with unpolluted waters snakes through a dry plateau located on the southern slopes of the Velebit range. The area is a paradise for reptiles.
Dalmatia is a paradise for amphibians and reptiles, whith many species and unusually high densities. The pictures below illustrate this diversity.
The sharp-snouted rock lizard (Dalmatolacerta oxycephala). This lizard is found only in a restricted range, in the south of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. During the mating season, the males display a blue color on the throat and at the base of the tail.
The blue-throated keeled lizard (Algyroides nigropunctatus). This lizard is found from northeastern Italy to northwestern Greece. During the mating season, the males display bright colors, with a deep blue throat contrasting with reddish flanks.
The Dalmatian wall lizard (Podarcis melisellensis). This lizard is found on the Dalmatian coast, from northeastern Italy to Albania. Males during the mating period are brightly colored, as can be seen from this photo. On the island of Cres (Croatia) where this photo was taken, these lizard are often carrying ticks (see below).
The Dalmatian wall lizard (Podarcis melisellensis).
The Dalmatian wall lizard (Podarcis melisellensis). This photo shows another typical coloration pattern, common on the Croatian coast along the Velebit range.
The European green lizard (Lacerta viridis). The males of this species often boast a blue throat in spring. Lacerta viridis is found in eastern Europe, from Germany to Turkey and Ukraine. It is replaced in western Europe (including France) by the western green lizard (Lacerta bilineata). A third species, the Balkan green lizard (Lacerta trilineata) occurs in mediterranean areas from Croatia to Turkey. Croatia is the contact area between the ranges of these three green lizards.
The Mediterranean house gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus). This gecko is found around the mediterranean. Rare in France, in is more common in the east where it is often found inside houses.
The scheltopusik (Pseudopus apodus). This impressive glass lizard reaches a length well over the meter. It is quite common in the dry bushes of the karstic regions of Dalmatia. It is found from Croatia to Turkey and south Russia, up to Jordan and Afghanistan.
Scheltopusiks (Pseudopus apodus) mating. During mating, the male holds the female's head to keep her still.
Juvenile scheltopusik (Pseudopus apodus). Seldom seen, the juvenile scheltopusik displays a banded pattern.
The four-lined snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata). This is the largest European snake, growing well over two meters. Very impressive, it is nonetheless perfectly harmless. The body is uniformly brown with four dark lines running along the back. This species is found in Italy, Dalmatia and Greece. It is listed as ''near-threatened'' by IUCN.
Juvenile four-lined snake (Elaphe quatuorlineata). The black-and-white speckled pattern of the juvenile is strikingly different from that of the adult.
The Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus). This long and thin snake climbs easily into trees. It is identified by its rather uniform color. This species occurs from France to Turkey.
The Balkan whip snake (Herophis gemonensis). This medium-sized snake has a typical color pattern, uniform on the lower part of the body ans spotted on the upper part. Its is found from northeastern Italy to Greece.
The leopard snake (Zamenis situla). This is one of the most beautiful snake in Europe, with large mahogany spots surrounded by a black margin. Rather small, this colubrid snake moves slowly. A declining Mediterranean species, it occurs from souther Italy to Turkey, with isolated populations in Ukraine.
Dahl's whip snake (Platyceps najadum). This long and thin snake has a typical color pattern, brown for most of the body except the for the upper part near the head which is gray. The rather rare snake is found from Croatia to Iran and the Caucasus.
The horned viper (Vipera ammodytes). This species is supposed to be the most dangerous snake in Europe, mainly because of the large amount of venom injected during the bite. However, this snake is rather shy and not particularly agressive. A stocky snake, the horned viper gets it name from the distinctive "horn" on the tip of its snout. This species occurs from northeastern Italy to Turkey.
Juvenile oriental Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni boettgeri). This subspecies replaces the occidental T. hermanni hermanni in Dalmatia and Greece. This very young individual is only a few centimeters long. As a species, Hermann's tortoise is listed as ''near threatened'' by IUCN.
The yellow-bellied toad (Bombina variegata). This small toad with a flattened body is found throughout Europe, where it is uncommon. When disturbed, it bends its body to show its brightly colored underside.
The Greek stream frog (Rana graeca). This frog is found in rivers and streams. It is endemic to the Balkans.
The Greek stream frog (Rana graeca).
The Albanian water frog (Pelophylax shqipericus). This frog has a restricted distribution, from western Albania to southern Montenegro. Because of threats including pollution, loss of habitat and harvesting, this species is listed by the IUCN as "endangered".
The Albanian water frog (Pelophylax shqipericus).
Juvenile spiked magician (Saga pedo) after molting. This grasshopper, the largest in Europe (up to 17 cm long), is found in dry grasslands up to 1700 m of elevation. In Europe, this species reproduces by parthenogenesis, without males. This rare species, listed as threatened by IUCN, is protected in most its distribution range.
The southern festoon (Zerynthia polyxena). This beautiful butterfly occurs in southern Europe, from France to Turkey and the Ural. This orange-tinted form is often found in the Balkans.
The southern festoon (Zerynthia polyxena).
Calopteryx balcanica. This nice damselfly has bicolored wings and a metallic-tinted purple body. It is found along the pure streams of the Balkans. This species with a restricted distribution is often considered a subspecies of the banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens).
Moltkia petraea. This pretty plant decorates with its colored bushes calcareous cliffs and boulders, in spring. Its is endemic to the Balkans, but widespread in Europe as an ornament plant.
The yellow asphodel (Asphodeline lutea). This nice plant is easily identified by its flowering stalks reaching 1 meter tall, bearing yellow flowers with recurving stamens. It is found in North Africa and in the east of the Mediterranean basin up to Italy.
The black-eyed vetch (Vicia melanops). This vetch boasts contrasted flowers with a greenish banner and black wings. It is usually found in dry areas. This is a species from Southern Europe, found from Spain to Turkey.
The bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum). This nice member of the Geraniaceae family has distinctive long stamens hanging outside of the corolla. It grows in cracks of calcareous rocks, in the shade. In the wild, the bigroot geranium occurs from southeastern France (Alpes-Maritimes) to the Balkans. It is also commonly grown in gardens.
The purple mullein (Verbascum phoeniceum). This beautiful species is readily identified by its striking violet flowers, unique in the genus Verbascum in Europe. This plant occurs in Italy, the Balkans and Turkey. It is widely grown in gardens.
Euphorbia fragifera. This small bushy spurge appreciates dry calcareous rocky areas. Its fruits are densely covered with reddish outgrowths. This species is found in the Balkans and Italy.
Centaurea ragusina subsp. lungensis. This centaury with large yellow flowers is found only in the maritime cliffs of the island of Dugi Otok (Kornati archipelago, Croatia). The plant forms bushes with striking white whooly leaves.
Illyrian iris (Iris illyricum). This nice iris grows in rocky limestone slopes and cliffs. In ancient Greece and Rome, this plant was widely used in perfumery and medicine. It is found from Croatia to Macedonia.
The Dalmatian scilla (Scilla litardierei). This nice plant grows in wet meadows. In the wild it is a rare species, with a restricted range: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. It is also increasingly grown in gardens throughout Europe.
Fritillaria messanensis subsp. gracilis. This fritillary with mottled orange brown-green flowers is endemic to the Dinaric Alps. It is found in Croatia, Montenegro and in the north of Albania.
Fruits of the water chestnut (Trapa natans scutariensis). These strange fruits, known as "sea devils", are produced by the water chestnut, an aquatic plant of vast world distribution, and contain edibles seeds. The shores of the Skadar Lake (Montenegro) are covered with the fruits of the local subspecies Trapa natans scutariensis.
The horned ophrys (Ophrys cornuta). This ophrys is distinguished by the long ''horns'' protruding from the labellum. It is distributed from the Balkans to Turkey. It is one of the most common ophrys in Montenegro.
Hybrid ophrys (Ophrys incubacea x O. bertolonii). Hybridisation is common among orchids, especially between species of the genus Ophrys. The identification of the ''parents'' is not always easy. In the present case, the elongated shape of the labellum and the pink petals are typical of Ophrys bertolonii (see below), while the blue macula and hairy bumps on the side of the labellum indicate O. incubacea.
Bertoloni's ophrys (Ophrys bertolonii). This beautiful ophrys is identified by its long black hairy labellum, bent in the middle. It is found from Italy to the Balkans. Several related species are found in the south of France: O. aurelia, O. saratoi et O. drumana.
This large wild and mountainous island boasts beautiful landscapes, with in particular many spectacular canyons. It harbors a rich and original flora with many endemic species, unfortunately submitted to a high pressure due to overgrazing by goats which are found everywhere in the island.
The bay of Lissos. Located on the south-western coast near the small village of Sougia, Lissos is both an important archeological site and a remarkable natural area.
The Samaria gorge. This wonderful gorge is the most visited natural area in Crete. This huge ravine descending from the White Mountains to the sea over a length of 13 km is a major shelter for the fauna and flora, including the Turkish pine (Pinus brutia). The gorge and its surroundings are protected by a National Park.
The Gious Kambos plateau. This plateau, located at an altitude of 800 m above the small town of Spili in central Crete, shelters a very rich flora with in particular many orchid species (see below).
The Cretan ophrys (Ophrys cretica). This beautiful species displays distinctive contrasted flowers with a white macula on a dark labellum. This is a south-Egean endemic, local and quite uncommon.
Ophrys iricolor. This wonderful Ophrys has large flowers with an elongated hairy labellum and a large, bright blue macula. The underside of the labellum has a typical reddish color. This rare species occurs in the oriental Mediterranean range.
Ophrys "fusca". The ophrys species from the group "fusca" are characterized by a flat and long labellum of brownish color, with a green perianth. The taxonomic situation within this group is rather unclear. The plants photographed here, with strikingly bright colors, could not be identified...
Ophrys "fusca". Another (?) species flowering on the same site, with large flowers and a broad yellow margin of the labellum.
The bumblebee orchid (Ophrys bombyliflora). The very small species often goes unnoticed. The shape and color of the flowers are characteristic. This is a Mediterranean plant, rare and threatened.
The bumblebee orchid (Ophrys bombyliflora).
Ophrys episcopalis. This Ophrys with very large flowers occurs in the oriental Mediterranean range. It is relatively common in Crete.
The white ophrys (Ophrys candica). This other Ophrys species with large flowers is easily identified by its large macula with a broad whitish edge. This is a rare and local local plant, with a scattered distribution from southern Italy to south-western Anatolia.
Ophrys heldreichii. This species is only found in Greece. Quite similar to Ophrys scolopax, it usually has a large and triangular appendage. It is quite widespread in Crete.
The Sicilian ophrys (Ophrys sicula). This small Ophrys has small flowers with a flat labellum, with a wide yellow edge. This species occurs around the Mediterranean, except in the Iberian peninsula and mainland France. It is quite common in Crete.
The Sicilian ophrys (Ophrys sicula).
Anacamptis collina. This beautiful and early species is easily recognized to its colors and short and broad spur. A Mediterranean species, this orchid is usually scarce (extinct in France). It is relatively common in Crete.
Bory's orchid (Orchis boryi). This Orchis has a typical shape and coloration of the flowers, with almost no variations. It is an endemic of southern Greece, local and quite rare.
The Cretan orchis (Orchis sitiaca). This Orchis is identified by its folded labellum and long straight spur. It is an endemic of the mountains of Crete.
Serapias orientalis. This tongue orchid is identified by its large, pale flowers with a hairy labellum. This species is present mainly in Greece and Crete, although its exact distribution is not very well known.
Cephalanthera cucullata. This is probably the rarest of Cretan orchids, found only in three mountainous locations with a total population of a few hundred plants. It grows in the shade, in mixed forests of oak and cypress. The short spur and the ''hooded'' shape of the leaves are distinctive.
The Cretan red tulip (Tulipa doerfleri). This tulip, one of the five species found on the island, has an extremely restricted range. It blooms in large populations in April in fields and meadows.
Tulipa bakeri. This other Cretan endemic tulip has also a restricted range. It blooms in April-May in grasslands of mountainous plateaus.
Daphne sericea. This plant growing in rocky low mountains forms bushes densely covered with sweetly-scented flowers. The south-Greece form has the particularity that older flowers turn yellowish, as seen on this photo. This species is found from Italy to Turkey.
The Cretan peony (Paeonia clusii). This amazing white peony is endemic to Crete. Scarce and with a short flowering period, it is typically found in mountain gorges.
Arum idaeum. This nice arum is endemic to Crete. It flowers in April-May, in shadowy areas in the mountains.
The Cretan arum (Arum creticum). This is another beautiful arum species from the mountains of Crete. The yellow tint of the spathe, which is often folded backwards, is characteristic. This plant occurs in Greece and Turkey.
The Cretan arum (Arum creticum).
The dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris). This plant is one of the most spectacular in Europe. The plant can grow up to 1.5m tall, with flowers reaching 1 m. The fresh flowers (in April) emit a penetrating smell reminiscent of rotting meat, to attract flies that take part to the pollination process. In Crete this species is quite abundant, from sea level to low mountains. It is endemic of the Balkans, from Albania to Turkey.
The caper bush (Capparis spinosa). This plant forms bushes that often hang from overhangs in cliffs. The large flowers are short-lived and very attractive. The flowers buds, visible on this photo, are consumed as capers.
The Cretan silver bush (Ebenus cretica). This remarkable plant, endemic to Crete, forms silvery bushes that hang from maritime cliffs. It is seldom found inland, on sandy slopes. Flowering occurs in April-May.
Fritillaria messanensis. Fritillaries as recognized to their mottled brown-green, bell-shaped flowers. Many species are found in the Mediterranean basin, including Fritillaria messanensis in the oriental part. In Crete, this plant is rather common in low mountains, in rocky slopes and meadows. Flowering occurs in April-May.
The lice-bane (Delphinium staphisagria). This tall, toxic plant was used in the past to eliminate lice. In Crete, this toxicity protects the plant against grazing by goats. This species, very rare and protected in France, is found in the Mediterranean Basin from Portugal to Greece, in Africa and Asia Minor.
Campanula tubulata. This nice bellflower has hairy reddish stems, large purple flowers with calix showing some distinctive protuberances. Endemic to western Crete, it grows in cliffs.
Petromarula pinnata. This strange plant belongs to the bellflowers family. A Cretan endemic, it is rather common there and grows in rock cracks and cliffs. The leaves are edible (the Greek name Petromarula means "rock lettuce"). The beautiful flowering stems can reach 1 m.
Solenopsis minuta. A member of the bellflowers family as well, this tiny plant is only a few centimeters high. This is an uncommon species, found in Crete at the bottom of certain canyons and on the shores of some lakes. A related species, Solenopsis laurentia, is also present. Solenopsis minuta is a species endemic to some mediterranean islands: Crete, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia.
Onosma erecta. This plant is endemic to mountains of southern Greece and Eastern Aegean. It blooms in cliffs and rocks cracks in spring.
The thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum). This plant is one of the distinctive species of the phrygana, a typical bush formation of the dry and overgrazed places in Crete. The thorny burnet occurs in the eastern mediterranean range.
Fauna in Crete is much more inconspicuous than flora, with the noticeable exception of birds (and goats !) which are numerous in spring. Insects, reptiles and amphibians are scarce. Surprises are however awaiting the watchful visitor:
Slant-faced grasshopper (Truxalis nasuta). This stunning grasshopper of large size (up to 10 cm of body length) displays an elongated body and a conical head. The color is green or brown. The wings, visible in flight, are dark red. This species is often found in dry and sandy areas near freshwater. Another similar species, Acrida turrita, is also present in Crete (see below). It seems that adults found in Crete in spring (as this individual) belong to T. nasuta, since adults of A. turrita appear later in summer. Truxalis nasuta occurs in the south of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East, Africa and India.
Slant-faced grasshopper (Truxalis nasuta).
Juvenile turret cone-headed grasshopper (Acrida turrita). As discussed above, only juveniles of this species are present in Crete in spring.
Orchramus raulinii. This large (7 cm length including antennae for this female), stocky grasshopper belongs to the Pamphagidae family. The male (see below) is much smaller. The genus Orchramus regroups a few species with restricted ranges in Eastern Mediterranean. Ochramus raulinii is endemic to Crete, where it is found in rocky slopes and pine forests. This rare species is liste as "vulnerable" by IUCN.
Orchramus raulinii male.
The eastern festoon (Allancastria cerisyi). This butterfly is observed in spring in dry rocky valleys, from sea level to an altitude of at least 1500 m. The caterpillar feeds on several birthwort (Aristolochia) species, including Aristolochia cretica. This species is relatively common in southern Crete. Its distribution includes Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Greece and Turkey, Israel and Lebanon.
Coenonympha thyrsis. Several member of the genus Coenonympha are endemic to some mediterranean islands. Coenonympha thyrsis is only found in Crete, where it is relatively common.
Hipparchia cretica. The genus Hipparchia counts many species in the Mediterranean Bassin. Hipparchia cretica is endemic to Crete, where it is found in dry and rocky areas.
Oil beetle (Meloe tuccius). Oil beetles are rather large insectes with a soft abdomen, that release toxic droplets from their joints when disturbed. This individual is photographed on a bush of thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum), an essential component of the Cretan "phrygana" vegetation. Meloe tuccius occurs in the Mediterranean basin.
Julotis pubescens ivenii. This large member of the Buprestidae family displays distinctive longitudinal grooves on the elytra, and a rather unusual green pilosity. It is an endemic species of Crete.
Albinaria sphakiota. These small terrestrial molluscs sometimes gather in large numbers in the cliffs of canyons. This species is a Cretan endemic with a very restricted range, occuring in a few canyons on the southern slopes of the White Mountains. It is listed as "vulnerable" by IUCN.
The freshwater crab (Potamon fluviatile). This freshwater crab is found in Italy and the Balkans. It lives on the banks of rivers at low elevations. Mainly nocturnal and aquatic, it sometimes wanders far from the water as for the individual on this photo.
The freshwater crab (Potamon fluviatile).
The Cretan wall lizard (Podarcis cretensis). This lizard is endemic to Crete, and the only lizard species there apart from the Balkan green lizard (Lacerta trilineata). It occurs in the western half of the island, where it is not very common. The male shown on this photo is particularly colorful. This species with a restricted distribution is listed as "endangered" by IUCN.