Birds have been present in Greece for thousands of years. Fossilized bird remains have been traced back as far as the Miocene and the remains of an extinct ostrich, Struthio karatheodoris, have been excavated on Samos. These remains were dated to the Lower Pliocene, approximately five million years ago.
Nowadays Greece possesses a rich diversity of bird species. Over 400 bird species have been recorded throughout the country and 300 of these can be found in the Aegean Sea. Just under half of these birds are thought to be migratory and only spend a short time on the islands, but they remain important to the ecosystem. Many small islands and islets provide the perfect breeding ground for resident birds and are ideal resting places for the migratory ones due to a low number of natural predators. Some birds, such as the Eleonora’s falcon (Falco eleonorae), breed almost exclusively on such rocky islets present in the Aegean.
Birds not only play an important role in island ecosystems, but are also a good natural indicator of healthy environments. However, many of them are threatened due to habitat loss, reduction of food resources and persecution by humans.
A lot of important bird fauna that can be found on the Aegean islands consists either of water birds or birds of prey. Birds that live in or rely upon large bodies of water are collectively called water birds. These can vary from long legged wading birds of the order Ciconiiformes to medium and large water birds of the order Pelecaniformes.
The Egretta garzetta is a slim bird which changes its appearance during mating season in order to attract a partner. The space between the eye and bill turns yellow-reddish, delicate plumes are formed by two elongated nape feathers, and long scapular feathers form a cloak. At other times of the year, the lore is a blue-green or blue-grey and there are no plumes.
The Athene noctua is most likely to be seen at dusk, when it is instantly recognizable. It will be seen as a round silhouette sitting on a post or a branch and searching for prey. The flight of this bird is a distinctive, undulating action, which demonstrates bursts of quick wing beats and downwards swoops. The species will eat a variety of different animals, including invertebrates, small mammals, reptiles and other birds.
The Falco eleonorae is a medium-sized, long-tailed, sharp-winged falcon found within the Mediterranean region and parts of Western Africa at times during their breeding season. The species has two color morphs; one form is completely dark, whereas the other has white color and dark moustache. They feed primarily on insects, however during the breeding season they turn their attention to small migrating birds. It is thought that around 80% of the global population of these birds (56 colonies) breed in Greece.
For the Himantopus himantopus, sexual dimorphism is low, with the male being only slightly larger than the female and having a marginally glossier green mantle. They can be recognized by a distinctive nasal, slightly bleating and tinny ring of its call. This sound can be heard across the saltwater and freshwater wetlands that these birds occupy.
The C. nigra can be identified by its black head, neck, breast and back with a metallic green or violet gloss. They have a preferred nesting habitat of vast, swampy forests where they will nest in the crowns of trees.
Black capped jay
The Garrulus glandarius samios is a subspecies unique to the Aegean Islands of Samos and Ikaria that is resident year round. The black capped jay is differential from the Eurasian jay due to the prominent black crown on the top of the head. Black capped jays preferred habitat is dense oak woodland, orchards and olive groves although they can commonly be seen in wooded areas of pine.
P. pygmeus is mostly a vagrant species over the Aegean Islands. The Pygmy Cormorant is typically found around fresh water surrounded by thick woodland or reed beds to which they will build their nests within. This species is identifiable from other Cormorant species from being much smaller ‘Coot sized’ and its mostly blackish plumage with a dark green and bronzy gloss.
Phoenicopterus ruber are wintering birds on the Aegean Islands, including Samos, Lesbos and Kos, and have been known to nest here in the past. These saltpan dwelling birds are unmistakable with their white/pink plumage, long pink legs and jet black flight feathers.
Tourist and agricultural developments are increasingly encroaching on suitable nesting, feeding and roosting sites for many bird species. The drainage of vast areas of wetland for agriculture and irrigation is a large problem in the mainland Greece. For example, before 1930 it was estimated that Macedonia had 157,200 ha of wetlands, but 73.2% of them have disappeared entirely due to draining. These wetlands are an important resting place for migrating birds, without which many cannot survive the journey across Europe and Africa.
For example, in Ikaria most of the ancient oak forests have been cleared and, over time, they have been replaced with pine forests. These forests are a less suitable habitat for many species, such as the little owl, which prefers old oak trees to nest in. Land which has been cleared is also vulnerable to fire, as low lying vegetation will predominate. Fires can devastate an area with populations of ground dwelling birds, which rely on low lying scrubland.
Pesticides and herbicides are commonly used throughout Greece. Pesticides are sprayed in order to prevent pests, such as the olive-fruit fly (Dacus oleae), insects, microbes and bacteria, from eating and damaging the crops.
The addition of these toxic chemical compounds can be detrimental to bird species for a number of reasons. Pesticides and herbicides contain endocrine-disrupting substances, which affect reproduction and hormones within animals. This may limit the ability of further generations to reproduce or, in extreme cases, kill the individuals themselves. Pesticides can deprive birds of the insects they eat or make them ingest something that has been sprayed with pesticides. This could lead to an accumulation of harmful substances, such as mercury, DDE (a broken down form of DDT) and PCB, within the bird, causing detrimental effects.
Illegal hunting for migratory and resident birds is a big problem within the Ionian and the Aegean islands. Often hunters are unaware or ignore the fact that some species are protected and vital to specific ecosystems. Data from the Hellenic Wildlife Hospital, an NGO dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of wild animals, says that roughly 60-70% of the birds they treat are wounded or killed by hunting.
Certain areas of Greece have been designated as national parks, e.g. Ramsar designated wetlands and IBAs (Important Bird Areas).
Researchers working for Archipelagos have been carrying out assessments of the biodiversity and abundance of bird populations. This includes daily qualitative ‘patch visits’ to enable clarification of the status (i.e. overwintering, breeding etc) of all the species found on the islands and islets of the eastern Aegean. These studies into bird demographics have led to comprehensive species lists being formulated for the islands. All the information collected will allow us to create a guide to the most common bird species, as well as the rare and important species within the Aegean. As this data has been collected, fluctuations of bird numbers over time have been be monitored.
The islands of the Aegean Sea host numerous herpetological species (reptiles and amphibians), from highly venomous vipers to the very rare Mediterranean common chameleons. These charismatic species are endangered by changes in land use, farming practices, climate change and illegal export. In recent years Archipelagos has been running a number of initiatives for the conservation of the herpetological species of Samos. These areas are known to support the populations of four amphibians, twelve snakes, ten lizards, one tortoise, three marine turtles and three freshwater terrapin species, one of which is invasive.
Reptiles and amphibians are ectothermic (cold blooded), which means that their internal temperature is governed by ambient temperature. Therefore, their behavior is highly temperature dependent, becoming increasingly active after basking on sunny days and less active during cold periods of the year. In the peak summer months, when temperatures become very high, these animals become very elusive. This adaptive physiology means that herpetofauna has very low energy expenditure and can survive long periods with very little food.
The cold blooded nature of these animals and their semi-permeable skin makes them perfect environmental indicators, especially with regards to climate change and water toxicity. This highlights the significance of studying this animal group in order to reveal early changes in ecosystem health. Archipelagos has been conducting various studies to monitor Aegean reptile and amphibian populations and collaborating with inhabitants of the islands to work towards their conservation.
This small lizard is endemic to western Anatolia (including Samos and Ikaria), where it inhabits rocky outcrops and dry areas. The species is insectivorous and grows up to approximately 20-25 cm.
Montivipera xanthina is the only viper on the islands and the most venomous snake in Europe. This species is highly polymorphic and a number of other snakes of Samos exhibit similar patterning and coloration, so identification of this species can sometimes be tricky. It usually preys on small lizards and mammals.
Dolichophis caspius is the longest snake on the island, growing up to two meters long. It is a thick bodied snake with a small head.
Eryx jaculus turcicus is one of the most common subspecies of sand boa. This species can grow between 40 and 60cm long. It is found in arid, sandy areas, mainly around the coast and feeds on small lizards and mammals.
Laudakia stellio can change color very quickly, from dark brown to light brown and grey. These are usually solitary animals, but if the species density in an area is quite high they often form pairs. Males are territorial and during breeding season they will defend their territory aggressively. This species usually feeds on ants and any succulent vegetation.
Ophisaurus apodus is a limbless lizard species which looks similar to a snake. However, unlike snakes it has holes on each side of the head, which are its ears, distinguishing it from snakes. The species can grow up to 1.4 meters long, with half of this size comprising of the tail.
Spur thighed tortoise
Testudo graeca is named after the obvious spurs on its thighs. It is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of 2009 and protected by Appendix II CITIES IV.
Chameleons are one of the most easily identifiable members of the lizard family. They have a prehensile tail, which acts as a fifth limb and can grasp onto branches, as well as large, turreted eyes, with fused eyelids able to move independently of each other, allowing to focus on two different fields of view. When it locates its prey, the chameleon is able to switch to binocular vision in order to target the insect better. Chameleons use their tongues as the predominant method for catching prey. The common chameleon deliberately moves in a slow manner, which is a ruse to convince potential predators that it is just a leaf in the wind.
Bufo bufo is widespread across Europe. It is known for its warty skin, which secretes toxins to deter most predators. However, a few animals – including grass snakes and hedgehogs – will eat toads despite their toxins.
Many reptiles and amphibians found on the islands of the Aegean are protected under Appendix II of CITES, as well as Appendix IV of the European Habitats Directive and Appendix II of BERN Convention. Their main threats include:
Many reptiles and amphibians are killed each year on the roads of the island of Samos. As they travel over the roads in order to find new territories, prey or mates, they face a high risk of being killed, especially if they are slow moving species like the chameleons. Many drivers do not see them in time, or it is not safe for them to slow down without causing an accident.
Conventional farming practices
Extensive use of pesticides and herbicides on farmed crops is a common occurrence in Greece. In conventional practices, toxic chemical pesticides such as isopropylamine salt of glyphosatepolyethoxylated tallow amine (PTA) are sprayed on crops in order to protect them from being eaten or damaged by pests, such as insects, fungi and bacteria. Furthermore, herbicides are also used to intentionally prevent growth of non farmed vegetation, causing additional problems for snakes and lizards, as well as the organisms which prey on them.
Smuggling for pet trade
The uncontrolled pet trade endangers species such as the Mediterreanen chameleon, the starred agama and the Balkan terrapin. One of the most affected species is the Mediterranean chameleon. This species is protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix II, as well the European Habitats Directive and the Greek Red Data Book of Threatened Vertebrates. However, enforcement of these regulations is inefficient. Inhabitants of the islands need to be encouraged to report suspected trafficking to the proper authorities. Many locals know of this practice, but are not aware that the species is protected.
Increased land claim by tourist and agricultural developments throughout the Aegean is one of the biggest threats to reptiles and amphibians. Wetland areas, such as the Mesokampos marsh in the southeastern region of Samos, have been dried and subsequently altered to allow the construction of hotels and apartments.
Archipelagos’ herpetological research currently focuses on the island of Samos, as well as Lipsi, an island located in the region of the northern Dodecanese. Despite the fact that many of these species are protected, their protection largely exists only on paper, with their populations still suffering from many anthropogenic impacts.
Scientific study is essential in order to understand the threats to these species so we can begin their conservation, however without the support of local communities most of the work is likely to be in vain. Therefore, it is important to raise awareness among local communities, encouraging them to take the protective status of these species seriously.
This will involve preliminary work, such as research into species composition and distribution, population and habitat monitoring, as well as education and public awareness. Implemented on the islands of Samos and Ikaria, will in time be extended to address the herpetological fauna across the Aegean.
According to the historical data obtained from questionnaire based surveys carried out by Archipelagos, the population of chameleons on Samos has declined significantly during the past couple of decades. This shows the need for immediate application of management measures.
The key part of Archipelagos’ herpetological work focuses on the Mediterranean chameleon. It includes population and habitat monitoring, phenology studies and educating local communities to increase protection. Archipelagos aims to create an efficient and realistic action plan for the conservation and protection of the species. Once this aim is achieved, the template can be used to model action plans for species with similar requirements.
Bat populations on the islands of Samos and Ikaria have previously been unstudied. Whilst it is clear from anecdotal evidence that there are numerous bat roosts on the islands, very little is known about the species composition, abundance, habitat use, ecology or threats. Literature reviews of studies carried out on the island of Crete and on the mainland of Greece have led us to believe that there could be as many as 35 species from four different families present across the Aegean. Close proximity to Turkey means there may also be species previously unrecorded in Greece.
Bat biology and behavior
Bats belong to the order of Chiroptera, literally meaning hand-winged. They are the only mammals that have achieved true flight. They are unique from all other mammals due to having distinctive physical characteristics and behavior.
Bats are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk, although foraging also takes place throughout the night, especially in mid-summer when the nights are short. Bats have specialized to hunt in the dark by using high frequency echolocation to navigate and locate their prey. During the summer months females form maternity colonies in which they give birth to and raise their young ones. During the winter bats group together, often in underground locations, such as caves, entering a state of torpor.
In the spring and autumn bats may be transient and opportunistic, making use of a variety of roosting sites. In summer and winter however, the roosting sites are used habitually, with populations returning to the same roosts year after year. An individual roost may be used by thousands of bats, potentially accounting for a large percentage of a population of a particular species on the island. It is very important for these roosting sites to be located and protected.
Why protect bats?
Bats are not just an unusual, mysterious species. The ecosystem services provided by bats are significant. Foraging on insects such as midges, mosquitoes, moths and beetles, bats deliver effective natural pest eradication, which is very important especially to farming communities. Unfortunately, local attitudes towards bats across the Aegean are related to myth and superstition. At best, bats are viewed as mysterious creatures about which little is known, at worst they are persecuted as pests or symbols of evil. Changes in land use and infrastructure as well as the high use of chemical pesticides potentially threaten populations.
Part of the work of Archipelagos involves providing education to the local communities in the islands and acting together for the protection of natural ecosystems.
Family: Rhinopomatidae (horseshoe bats)
- Rhinolophus ferrum equinum – greater horseshoe bat
- Rhinolophus hipposideros – lesser horseshoe bat
Family: Vespetilionidea (vesper or plain nosed bats)
- Pipistrellus nathusii – Nathusius’ pipistrelle
- Pipistrellus kuhlii
All European bat species are listed on Annex IV of the European Habitats directive, under which it is an offence to:
- deliberately capture, injure or kill a bat;
- deliberately disturb a bat, including a disturbance which is likely to impair; their ability to survive, breed or reproduce, especially while it is rearing or otherwise caring for its young;
- disturb such an animal in a manner that is, or in circumstances which are, likely to significantly affect the local distribution or abundance of the species to which it belongs;
- damage or destroy a breeding site or a resting place.
In reality, the lack of knowledge and law enforcement mean that there is no protection of bats on the islands. It is important to note that compared to many other tourist destinations, the island of Samos remains relatively undeveloped. The rural way of life is still persistent across most of the islands and therefore the pressure on bats caused by building developments and increased infrastructure is less prevalent than in many other parts of Europe. That said, the treats to bats caused by urbanization need to be considered during future developments. These include the loss of foraging habitat, roosting sites and breeding grounds, loss of habitat connectivity and light pollution.
Bats can often be found roosting in buildings, especially during the summer months, when warm attic spaces and tiled roofs can make ideal maternity roosts. Bats and their roots are protected under the European law. It is an offence to disturb their roosts, even if the bats are not present. Whilst many buildings are unsuitable for bats, there is always a potential for disturbance during conversions and repairs to existing properties.
New development brings other problems, including the loss of potentially important foraging grounds, such as orchards, meadows and forests, as well as increased light pollution and loss of habitat connectivity.
Bats can often tolerate low levels of artificial light and will frequently be seen foraging around occasional street lamps. However, areas of excessive light pollution are generally avoided. The introduction of lighting to habitually used foraging grounds, swarming sites and commuting routes could potentially cause significant disturbance to local distribution and abundance of a species.
Loss of habitat connectivity
For many species of bats habitat connectivity is an imperative. Some species are so sensitive that they will not cross even small open areas. Therefore, changes in land use and infrastructure, such as roads which cause disruption to habitually used linier landscape can significantly effect a population. Species which tend to be most affected by these changes are those which hunt in dense vegetation, including long-eared bats and the greater mouse-eared bat, which hunt passively, using highly sensitive ears to locate their prey and echolocation primarily for navigation. Highly structured, mosaic landscapes provide high quality foraging habitat for bats.
Opening caves for tourism
A number of caves on the islands are regularly visited by the public. Some even contain small chapels and can be easily accessed from marked footpaths. Roosting bats are easily disturbed - noise and light from head torches will often cause them to take flight, moving to deeper parts of the cave. Occasional disturbance generally can be tolerated by bats, and the roost will not be abandoned. However, frequent disturbance may degrade the value of a roost.
Hibernating bats are at a higher risk from disturbance. When bats “wake” from torpor they begin to use their fat reserves. Severe disturbance, causing them to become active, can seriously jeopardize their survival during the winter months. Ventures to open caves are the greatest threat, because frequent visitation and artificial lighting will almost certainly lead to bats abandoning their roosts.
The island of Samos has a largely rural economy, with landscapes of natural forests, olive groves, orange plantations, pastures and arable lands. High level of chemical herbicides and pesticides such as isopropylamine, salt of glyphosate, and polyethoxylated tallow amine (PTA) are used in some areas to protect the crops. These chemicals endanger the bats directly, by contaminating insects which are later ingested by bats and indirectly, by depleting food sources.
Wind farm development
There are substantial wind farm developments on the island of Samos. They are situated on the high grounds in the west of the island.
The potential threat of wind farms to bat populations has been well documented, although research into the actual impacts of these developments is rudimentary. We do know that bats appear to be sucked into the vacuum created by rotating blades and killed by the change of pressure. We also know that bats can be opportunistic and inquisitive, meaning that they will often investigate new objects, such as the turbines. It is clear that some species are at a bigger risk from wind farms than the others. These include high flying bats, such as Noctule’s and Liesler’s, those with loud echolocation and those with a particularly inquisitive nature, such as the common pipistrelle. Turbines which are placed away from regular flight paths and foraging areas, as well as in exposed locations are less likely to significantly affect bat distributions and abundances.
The turbines on Samos are placed in very exposed locations, away from major vegetation. No relevant research has been carried out yet, but we hypothesize that the threat to bats caused by these turbines is minimal.
In the autumn of 2011, Archipelagos began preliminary research on the bat populations in the eastern Aegean islands. This included a number of transect surveys in combination with analysis of sound files collected.
Transect surveying is a common method for measuring abundance and distribution of bat populations, which can be very useful for identifying key foraging areas, breeding grounds and commuting routes. A route is planned (usually around 3 km long) and walked at dusk. A bat detector is carried to pick up the echolocation signals of passing bats. The surveyor notes the bat’s flight directions and behavior, as well as the location and time. The echolocation calls are recorded for later analysis. Transect surveys can be walked or sometimes conducted from a vehicle.
The main purpose of cave visits is identifying species present on the island. During the visits bats are weighed, measured, and key features are noted for later identification to be made. Droppings are collected for DNA analysis. We are collaborating with the local caving group and various locals who have the knowledge of caves in the area.
In the next phase of the project, it is planned to commence mist netting, with the aim of making accurate species identifications. Research in relation to the impact of wind farms on the local bat populations will also take place.
The bat project is currently inactive. However, we are looking for researchers with the license and equipment to survey bats and continue the study.
Golden jackals or common jackals are medium size canids, slender animals with long legs and brushy tails. Their coats are, as the name suggests, generally golden or yellow, but they may vary from pale to tawny.
Due to their tolerance of dry habitats and their omnivorous diet (they consume approximately equal proportions of both animal and vegetarian food) the golden jackals are widespread mammals, which can be found everywhere from northern and eastern Africa to southeastern Europe and south Asia. They are the most northerly and also the most widely distributed of all jackal species. Golden jackals feed mostly on rodents, hares, ground birds and their eggs, reptiles, frogs, insects and fruits, but they are opportunistic animals and sometimes they venture into human settlements to feed on garbage.
Golden jackals live in pairs and are strictly monogamous. In most jackal families, besides the parents and their offspring, there are one or two adults called helpers. Helpers are young jackals which stay with a family for almost a year after reaching sexual maturity, but do not breed. Instead, they help to take care of the next generation of cubs.
The golden jackals which live close to the areas inhabited by humans are strictly nocturnal, but they may be partly diurnal elsewhere. Since they are a very vocal species, one can hear them during the nighttime barking, growling, cackling or making whining calls.
Despite their name, the golden jackals are genetically more closely related to the grey wolves and coyotes than to any other jackal species. They behave in a manner similar to dogs, but if they are domesticated they will remain shy around strange people and will not allow themselves to be petted by them.
Golden jackals are considered dangerous, but in fact they are quite shy and inoffensive, rarely attacking large animals and never humans. The reason for most people to hunt jackals, besides fear, is their fur. Another major reason why people do not like these animals is because they damage crops such as maize, sugarcane and watermelon and sometimes, motivated by a lack of food, they may attack sheep.
Anyhow, jackals play an important role as scavengers, eating rubbish and dead animals and help to keep areas near towns and villages clean and pest free. They also eat rodents and rabbits, keeping their numbers down, which helps farmers.
Due to the fact that until 1990 the jackals were labeled as harmful in Greece (between 1974 and 1981 over 7,000 animals were deliberately killed), the golden jackals are the rarest of the three wild extant canids (these are jackals, wolves and red foxes). Jackals disappeared from the central and western Greece and are now limited to discontinuous, isolated population clusters in the Peloponnese, Fokida, Samos Island, Khalkidhiki and northeastern Greece.
- Jackals are true members of the Canidae family and can actually interbreed with both domestic dogs and wolves.
- The ancient Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis, was portrayed as a jackal-headed man, or as a jackal wearing ribbons and holding a flagellum.
- In Hinduism, the golden jackal is portrayed as the familiar of several deities, the most common of which is Chamunda, the emaciated, devouring goddess of the cremation grounds. Another deity associated with the jackals is Kali, who inhabits a cremation ground and is surrounded by millions of jackals.
- The vocabulary of golden jackals is similar to that of dogs, with seven different sounds previously recorded.
Archipelagos undertakes several projects related to golden jackals, using various techniques and approaches. In order to monitor the local population, camera traps are used. They are baited with different foods, predominantly meat. This approach has several objectives, such as individual identification, investigating the use of smell, food preference and general observation of this shy species. For each of these objectives, the camera and the bait must be placed in different ways. For example, the food preference or dietary study requires meat baits to be placed in increasingly more difficult places, to test how far the jackals will go before opting for a less desirable fruit or vegetable choice. The camera must be placed in a way which allows the whole scene to be observed, so the ideal position for filming is slightly remote from the bait.
Previous work includes acoustic surveys on a bi-weekly basis. A previously recorded jackal howl is broadcasted from a high vantage point in a 360 degree direction for a period of roughly 15 seconds. Afterwards there is a 3 minute waiting period, in which a response is hoped for. If the jackals do not respond, the process is repeated twice more. If a response is heard, several things must be noted, including the direction it came from, the time elapsed after the broadcast finished and how many jackals can be heard. The response is also recorded and analyzed later.
Although rarely observed by locals, the weasels populate a variety of habitats, including cultivated farmland, forests, hedgerows and scrubland. Weasels prefer to form their dens in crevices between tree roots or colonize abandoned burrows. In order to reduce the risk of predation, this particular species tends to avoid open spaces, favoring areas with a high density of vegetation instead. The weasel has an elongated, tubular torso with short limbs and a tapered flat head. Its slender frame allows it to easily travel through a network of tunnels and hunt down its prey. Fur on the weasels back is brown and coarse with creamy white patches underneath.
The stone marten is a Samos native, easily confused with the least weasel (Mustela nival) due to their similar body shapes and size. This species is widespread throughout Europe and Asia, however due to its size and behavior it is extremely difficult to see. Stone martens prefer to live in forested areas, but can also swim and are opportunistic feeders. When fully grown, the males can reach 0.91 m in length from nose to tail with a mass of around 2 kg. The stone marten has coarse fur, which is dark grey in color with a white undercoat.
One of the largest mammals that inhabits Samos is the wild boar. It is believed that this species was introduced by hunters fairly recently, which resulted in a golden jackal (Canis aureus) population decline during the 70s. The decline occurred because hunters were accidentally injuring or even killing jackals when hunting for boars. Wild boars can grow up to 1.1 m in height and have a mass of 90 kg when fully grown. Their fur is coarse and similar to jackals, but it is much darker in color.