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Wildlife

The wildlife today in the area of Malia and Crete in general does not have much in common with the bizarre animal kingdom it hosted in pre-historic times. Odd creatures like elephants the size of a cow and hippos as high as a pig were not uncommon. But with the settling of humans, the landscape and therefore the wildlife changed. Some animals, like the elephant and the hippo, disappeared long before humans arrived. Some, like the spiny mouse, adapted themselves to the new circumstances, while others, like goats and pigs, were brought by man. As far as is known, there were never predatory beasts in Crete, as there are none today.

Mammals

Mammals can roughly be divided into endangered species – like the aghrimi ("wild goat") and the fouroghattos ("furious cat") – and domestic animals, like sheep, goats, cats and dogs. Apart from those, there are also weasels, badgers, hares, hedgehogs, field mice, shrews and beech martens.

Fouroghattos

Now, this Cretan wild cat is a quite mysterious animal that is hard to trace. Some years ago it was accidentally trapped by a team of Italian students during their research on carnivorous animals. Examined and radio-collared, it was set free again. Until then it was only known about from hearsay of shepherds in the mountains, who claimed that the wild cat existed. Weighing around 5.5kg, with a tawny coat and tiger-like growl, it appears to belong to the north-African race, and is not related to the European cats. Since then, no more wild cats have been caught, though recently researchers at Crete’s Natural History Museum managed to photograph one more specimen.

Aghrimi

The aghrimi, also called "kri-kri", is a Cretan ancestral wild goat. Bigger than a domestic goat, it has magnificent, sweeping horns that make it look like an Alpine ibex and it has reddish-brown fur that changes colour according to season, with the males favouring a beard. It was probably brought to Crete by Minoans and was often depicted in their art. It used to be widespread; until the last century it was found in all high mountains, also in the mountains over Krassi and Mohos but it has been hunted down severely. Today it lives only in the protected reservation area of the Samaria Gorge, on the islet Thodhorou and in Iraklio on the off-shore islet of Dhia. Here, as opposed to Samaria, the aghrimi survives but does not prosper: a small, low, waterless islet is not a good habitat for a mountain goat.

Cretan Hound-dog

With its 4,000 years one of the oldest species of dog, the Cretan hound-dog has always been used as man’s mate in hunting and shepherding. Up until about 50 years ago, it was any Cretan’s faithful friend, until, with the introduction of foreign dogs, it was pushed aside. Today it is highly valued and dearly sold and it seems that, by intervention just in time, it has been saved from extinction.

Insects, crawlers and creepers

Besides the ever annoying flies, mosquitoes, bees and wasps and hundreds of other insects, there are various beetles, like the dung beetle, rolling a ball of dung ahead of itself, or the praying mantis.

There are grasshoppers, crickets – where the males rub their wings together, calling out at night to the females to mate – and cicadas; these make an extremely intense noise produced by rapid vibrations of two membranes on either side of their body. Although they are hard to discern because of their camouflage on the (olive) trees in the fields, their constant, monotonous call is one of the major characteristic sounds of Cretan summer.

There are beautifully coloured butterflies, like Cleopatras, swallowtails and the rare Cretan Argus. Snails come out of their hiding places after rain, making it easy to collect them, as they are a Cretan delicacy, very rich in proteins.

Reptiles and amphibians

The area of Malia hosts a perfect environment for reptiles, with plenty of sun to bask in and rocky terrain with stones to hide under. There are 11 species of reptiles and only 3 amphibians in Crete. Of the snakes, contrary to popular belief, none are dangerous to man. Although the Cat adder is poisonous, it is back fanged and holds too little poison. The Leopard snake, grey with red blotches edged in black, is the prettiest one of the lot. Of the lizards there is the local (Erhard’s) wall lizard or the Balkan green lizard. The liakoni, about 15cm. long, that looks like a snake and is considered extremely dangerous by Cretans, is in fact a harmless lizard. The geckoes, ‘samiamithi’ in Greek, usually live around homes, inside and out. They have suckers under their feet to climb walls and ceilings and are great mosquito catchers.

The amphibians are the green toad, with a marbled green-grey back and the Cretan marsh frog: a rather big, noisy frog that likes to live in the reservoirs scattered around the fields of Malia for irrigation; it can give whole concerts in spring. The tree frog is a small, green frog with suckers under its feet for climbing trees. The Terrapin is a small fresh-water turtle that lives in the wetland of the Potamos area in Malia.