In order for somebody to understand the richness of thee Cretan flora and fauna they just have to think that Crete has as many plant species and subspecies as almost the whole of England (1.450), even if it is 35 times as big as Crete. This richness, however, is not obvious only in the total number, but in the rate of endemism as well, meaning in the number of species that grow exclusively in Crete and nowhere else in the world. In Crete this number amounts to almost 160 species and subspecies, meaning that 9% of the flora species are unique.
Human interventions and mostly grazing, which has been a traditional activity in Crete for thousands of years, resulted in forming the Cretan flora in such a way that can support this activity. Consequently, most plants are thorny such as the kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) and the wild olive tree (Olea europaea) that are grazing-resistant and either appear for a short period of time or they are of bad taste so they can’t be eaten by animals. The flora species that create forest areas are few and these areas are not expanded as for example in Macedonia or Epirus. One of the reasons is the effect of grazing together with the climatic characteristics of the island. However, here you can find some of the rarest habitats in Europe such as the palm habitats of Theophrastos (Phoenix theophrastii).
Aromatic plants in Lasithi Plateau
Aromatic and medicinal plants have always had a special place in the civilizations of all people and eras. Aromatic plants are a great tradition in Lasithi Plateau and in Crete in general, which, according to studies, has one of the richest and most interesting ecosystems in Europe, with a great number of endemic plants. Aristotle mentions that when the Cretan wild goats used to get hurt by hunters’ poisonous arrows they used to chew dittany while licking their wounds and this is how they healed them.
Especially in Plateau area there are a great number of aromatic plants such as: lemon balm, oregano, sage, chamomile, basswood, laurel, peppermint, spearmint, wild mint, lavender, rosemary, germander and dittany, which have been being used since the ancient years because of their excellent therapeutic properties. The herbs of Lasithi Tableau grow on the steep slopes of Mount Dikti, which forms part of Natura European network 2000, and they are collected in the summer in order to be dried in a natural way and get to modern packaging plants, without any chemical or other process, and finally end up to be consumed as infusions against colds or also in cooking. Moreover, they are appetizing, antiallergenic, antiseptic and alleviating; they are widely used in perfumery and in the production of natural cosmetics, while some of them are used as beekeeping plants.
The cultivation of aromatic plants is considered a dynamic cultivation and it is an ideal solution to the exploitation of disadvantageous, mountainous and semi mountainous areas such as Lasithi Tableau that cannot support other cultivations, also appropriate during the restructuring of cultivations as it offers high incomes and possibilities of numerous related business activities.
Flora and vegetation in the Prefecture of Lasithi
Firewood is the main type of vegetation in the non cultivated areas or in old abandoned cultivated areas. Bushy plants such as the thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum), Genista acanthoclada, thyme (Coridothymus capitatus) and Cretan ebony (Ebenus cretica) cover, along with others, big areas as a result of the climate and terrain factors as well as of the human factor (husbandry and fires). In these ecosystems we can meet the most endemic plants and animals in the area. Areas with dense and bushy vegetation (maquis) where the schinus (Pistacia lentiscus), the kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), the wild olive tree (Olea europea ssp. Oleaster), the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) and the spiny broom (Calicotome villosa) actively participate in the formation of the biodiversity, even if they have been limited to steep and rocky slopes and clusters because of the human intervention.
There are still impressive dense pine forests, despite the repeated fires, on the south slopes of Dikti, Thrypti and Orno, interrupted by plane trees (Plafanus orientalis), poplars (Populus spp.) and oleanders (Nerium oleander) that grow along the length of the ravines. On the east end there is the unique Phoenix Theophrastii palm forest in Europe, which is of great biologic and aesthetic value, while on the east and south coast there are the well known underwater habitats with posidonia flowers (Posidonia oceanica), a sea plant that is combined with a great wealth of sea life. We also have important ecosystems with sand hills in Grandes Bay, east of Palaiokastro, in Xerokampo, in Koufonisi and Chrysi. These areas are a unique beachhead for North African plant and animal species for all Europe.
Moreover, the few wetlands of east Crete, though small, contribute importantly to the maintenance of the big biodiversity in the area. The artificial lake of Bramiana, the marsh in Vai, the estuaries in Kato Zakro and the stagnant brackish waters of Xerokampos, even the few flooded hectares of land in Chrysi, are found on one of the most basic routes of the bird migration, placing thus another pixel in the biologic mosaic of Crete.
East Crete hosts more than 150 species of endemic plants, almost 80% of the total number of endemic plants in the whole island. This rate is extremely high if we consider that the richest areas in endemic plants such as Nida’s Tableaus or the mountains of Lefka Ori are not included. On Thrypti Mountain, as well as in Ha Gorge there are at least 57 registered species of endemic plants, while such a high endemism rate (58 species) is found in Omalos Tableau (Vianos), in Selakano, in the area of Symi, etc… The slopes of east Dikti are also characterized by a relatively high biodiversity (almost 30 species of endemic plants), however the numbers are quite lower while moving deeper in the west, towards the plain of Messara.
Various endemic daisies stand out among the plants of the area such as: Anthemis filicaulis, Anthemis tomentella, steno endemic Mediterranean thyme (Thymbra calostachya), asperula (Asperula crassula), the yellow violet (Erysimum creticum) and the extremely dense populations of the Cretan ebony (Ebenus cretica).
Based on endemism, all the areas mentioned above, including Dionysades and Kapsa Monastery, are places of high biologic priority (“hot spots”), as far as the measures for the preservation and the further management of natural landscapes is concerned.
Source: Technological Research Centre of Crete
Fauna in the prefecture of Lasithi
The fauna of Crete has not been as thoroughly studied as its flora. However, the information in many areas coincide with the results of the high biodiversity of the flora, especially when it comes to the endemism of insects, snails and other small invertebrates in mountainous biotopes or other “hot spots” of endemism (skerries, subalpine biotopes etc…)
The standards of high rates of floristic diversity in the mountainous areas of Dikti, in Thrypti and the surrounding islets of Dionysades, Chrysi and Koufonisi for instance, are repeated in the case of the invertebrate fauna as well. An important detail of the Cretan fauna, regardless of the endemism, is the nesting of several rare or endangered (at a European as well as at a worldwide level) species of birds and insects, such as the bearded vulture and Caretta sea turtle. The bird species mentioned in the related appendix of the Directive played an important role in the characterization of the protected areas.
More than 250 bird species have been registered in east Crete. The most important areas concerning the avifauna include the mountains of Dikti, Thrypti and Orno, Dionysades islets and the east coasts with their wetlands. More specifically, in Dionysades 157 species have been registered, the most important of which are the following: Eleonora’s falcon (Falco eleonorae), Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris diomedea), Yelkouan shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan) and Audouin’s gull (Larus auduinii). It is impressive that one can observe bearded vultures (Gypaetus barbatus), vultures (Gyps fulvus), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), lanner falcons (Falco biarmicus) and other raptors not only in the mountainous nesting zones of Dikti and Thrypti, but in the plain brushwood areas around Siteia or Vai as well.
As far as mammals are concerned, the Cretan spiny mouse (Acomys minous) stands out in east Crete and the Cretan wildcat (Felis silvestris creticus) in Dikti, while no other Cretan mammal is absent, excepting the wild goat (Capra aegagrus cretica). The last ones of this species were eliminated in Dikti in the beginning of the 20th century. A small population of Cretan wild goats still exists, after human interventions, in the island of Agioi Pantes. The presence of dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba and Tursiops truncates) among cape Sidero, Dionysades and Elasa as well as of some Mediterranean monk seals (Monachus monachus) is also very important.
When it comes to reptiles, the presence of Caretta caretta on the coasts is very important. East Crete has plenty sandy biotopes with signs of sea turtle nesting according to the data of: Determination of nesting habitats of Caretta caretta in Greece» (Final EEC report – DG XI-1991). Eight more reptile species form relatively sparse populations. The most common ones are: the Eyed Skink (Chalcides occelatus), the Balkan green lizard (Lacerta trilineata), the European cat snake (Telescopus fallax) and the Balkan whip snake (Coluber gemonensis).
The presence of the common chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) in East Crete remains enigmatic even if it was mentioned 35 years ago in bibliography from Vai.
Source: Technological Research Centre of Crete