Mediterranean Island of Crete

This island ecoregion, found in the Mediterranean Sea, has been ravaged by human mismanagement. Timber harvesting and the conversion of forest into pastures have altered much of the original landscape of the island. Floral and faunal diversity for this relatively small ecoregion is high, containing three endemic mammal species, a shrew (Crocidura caneae), the spiny-mouse (Acomys minous), and a wild goat (Capra hircus cretensis). The island also support a number of rare and endangered birds such as the Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and Bonelli’s eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus).

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    3,200 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

 Location and General Description
The Crete Mediterranean forests ecoregion geographically covers a very small area, which is restricted to high mountain ranges (Lefka Ori, 2,452 m; Idi Oros, 2,456 m; Dikti Oros, 2,148 m), hills, and low plains of the island (8,700 km2). Climatically, the ecoregion is characterized by a sharp altitudinal gradient. Warm and dry low plains have an average annual temperature of about 17-19º C, with total rainfall of less than 300 mm in the south-eastern part of the island, while cold and humid higher elevations have average an annual temperature of about 9-13º C with total rainfall of up to 1,400 mm. From the geological point of view, the Crete mountain ranges belong to the Alpine orogenic system, characterized by the predominance of Mesozoic and Tertiary sedimentary rocks such as crystalline limestone, marl, sandstone, and conglomerates. Landform is very complex, typified by impressive karstic landforms (deep canyons, such as Samaria Gorge, poljes, and dolines).

The wide altitudinal range of this ecoregion results in several forest zones. The lowest elevations are distinguished by the predominance of sclerophyllous evergreen and semi-deciduous oak forests (Quercus coccifera, Q. brachyphylla), "maquis" of carob (Ceratonia siliqua), junipers (Juniperus phoenicea), and tree-spurge (Euphorbia dendroides). Phoenix teophrasti, one of the two Mediterranean palm species and endemic to Crete and the Datca Peninsula in south-western Turkey, occurs in a few ravines of the easternmost coastal part of the island (e.g. Vai bay).

At medium altitudes, mesophyllous pine forests (Pinus brutia) and holly oak (Quercus coccifera) woodlands are widely spread. The highest elevations host impresive cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) woodlands, where the endemic evergreen maple (Acer sempervirens) frequently grows. In the high mountain elevations, extensive thorny cushion shrublands occur and support many endemic species.

Biodiversity Features
The plant endemism rate of this ecoregion is about 10% from a total indigenous flora of 1,600 species. Most of the endemic species are ancient relics, which are mainly found on the three main mountain ranges, mainly Lefka Ori. Among the most significant endemic plants to be mentioned are a rare and very endangered small tree, Zelkova abelicea, as well as Cephalanthera cucullata, Centaurea baldaccii, Campanula hierapetrae, Bupleurum kakiskalae, Bellevalia brevipedicellata, Astragalus idaeus, Arumpurpureospathum, Anchusa caespitosa, Origanum dictamnus, Orchis prisca, and Onobrychis sphaciotica.

While faunal diversity for this ecoregion is significant, endemism is low. Two small mammals are endemic to the island, a shrew (Crocidura caneae) and a spiny-mouse (Acomys minous). The rare and endemic wild goat (Capra hircus cretensis) is still present in few places on the island.

These forests are considered to be an important Center of Bird Diversity. The high mountains are one of the last strongholds of the endangered Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), and Bonelli’s eagle (Hieraaetus fasciatus). About 83 bird species are recorded for the island. Three amphibians and 12 reptiles are thought to be native to Crete; none are endemic.

Current Status
Crete’s forests have been dramatically reduced in extent across history. Barren land, with almost nonexistent soil cover, and degraded shrublands are the predominant landscapes of the island. During Classic and Medieval times, Crete was an important shipbuilding center and timber exporting country. Cypress timber was once a very valuable resource. The island has seen great fluctuations in population and prosperity, which has resulted in a long history of use and abuse of timber resources. Overgrazing and the setting of fires to produce fresh grassland have contributed to the transformation of large areas of mature forests to degraded shrublands. Today, at least 50% of the land surface is used for grazing sheep and goats.

Types and Severity of Threats
There is a high potential of human impact, mainly due to mismanagement of pastures and grazing in mountain areas, growing tourism development in the northern coastal zone (mainly house building), and intensive agriculture in the southern coastal zone (pesticides and land clearance). Concrete production and road construction are devastating large areas of land with significant native habitats. Plant harvesting may be a long-term threat to some endemic plants.

Degree of Protection

  Country Area Name

& Creation Date
 PA size (ha)
 % Ecor.


& IUCN Cat.
 Major Forest Types
Greece Samaria 4,850   National Park

Biosphere Reserve
 Cypress, Calabrian pine, Plane tree, Holly oak forests

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
This ecoregion is equivalent to the DMEER (2000) unit of the same name and includes all of the meso-Mediterranean Holm oak forests, wild olive-locust tree formations, meso- to thermo-Mediterranean pine forests, juniper and cypress woodlands and scrub, and oroxerophytic vegetation on the island of Crete (Bohn et al. 2000).

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Prepared by: Pedro Regato
Reviewed by: In process