Crete’s Wildlife and Landscape

Crete’s wildlife and landscape are two of the island’s attractions, including gorges for hiking, rare raptors like the lammergeier, wildcats and ancient trees.

Hippos in Chania? Elephants at Elafonisi? Though these creatures roamed the island in times past, Crete’s landscape – and its fauna and flora – has been changed considerably by human habitation.

Crete’s Mountains

Crete’s defining natural features are its mountains, which cover two-thirds of its surface. Four great ranges slice through the island from east to west. The highest and most dramatic are the Levka Ori (White Mountains) in the west. The central Psiloritis range contains Crete’s highest peak, Mount Ida at 8,058 feet (2,456 m).

The Psiloritis Mountains on CreteThe Psiloritis Mountains on Crete

In the east are the Dikti and Siteia ranges. Made primarily of limestone, the mountains are riddled with caves that vary from great caverns with impressive formations to unexplored pot-holes. The best-known cave is the Diktean Cave, the birthplace of Zeus.

Our Pick of the Crete Guides

Lonely-Planet-Crete-2023.png

Habitat

Looking at Crete’s dry landscape today, often covered in stubby kermes oak and phrygana (a low scrub), it’s hard to imagine that it was once densely forested in cedar and cypress. The seafaring Minoans were the first to fell the ancient trees, using the lumber for ships and building, but the Venetians and Turks continued the deforestation and today only small pockets of native woodland exist, mainly in remote areas.

The Cretan Spiny MouseThe Cretan Spiny Mouse
Photo by C. Messier

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

With the loss of this habitat, Crete’s deer and many other larger woodland species of mammal largely died out. Of the smaller mammals that remain today, the endemic Cretan spiny mouse with its characteristic back spines is notable.

Cretan Herbs

Growing wild on many hillsides, and adding to the pleasure of walking on Crete, are numerous aromatic herbs including oregano, thyme, sage, and marjoram. Needless to say, these are commonly used in Cretan cooking, often gathered wild by people going foraging for them. See also our page on The Herb Man of Kouses.

Cretan dittany, or diktamo, is a medicinal herb that grows in remote gorges and which was used in ancient times to heal arrow wounds and ease childbirth pains. These days, people make tea with it, as a pleasant drink in its own right but also to help soothe stomach pains.

Cretan Wild Goats

The kri-kri, sometimes called the agrimi, is a large, wild goat with sweeping horns, much like those of an ibex. Its summer coat is reddish-brown, and males have a rather large beard. Plentiful in ancient times, it was often depicted in Minoan art but was subsequently hunted to near extinction.

A Cretan wild goat or kri-kri in a deserted village in the Samaria GorgeA Cretan Wild Goat or Kri-kri in a Deserted Village in the Samaria Gorge

The only natural population left is in remote areas of the White Mountains, where happily numbers have increased since the introduction of the national park there in 1962. Some animals were also moved to Dia and other offshore islands for protection. The kri-kri is very shy, but we were fortunate enough to see and film some of them when we stopped for a break while hiking the Samaria Gorge.

Cretan Birds

Crete’s geographical position and diverse habitats of high coastal cliffs, rocky islets, wetlands, and meadows make it a mecca for birdlife. Out of Greece’s 420 species, 350 have been spotted on Crete, and the island is also a top-over for winter migrants.

A Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture In FlightA Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture In Flight
Photo by Steve West

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Crete is the last breeding ground in Greece for the rare and endangered lammergeier, or bearded vulture. This magnificent bird has a wingspan of up to three meters (almost ten feet). Only about thirty birds are known to survive on Crete, but lammergeiers are occasionally seen soaring over the Omolos or Lasithi plateaus. An unusual feature of this bird is that most of its diet consists not of meat but of bones. It drops bones from a great height to smash them on rocks and then eat them.

You would have to be very lucky to see a lammergeyer but you’re far more likely to see a griffon vulture, with its distinctive white head. They’re still rare but Crete has the healthiest population of them in Greece and you may see them in groups of up to twenty or so, mainly in the mountainous regions. Other raptors to watch for include Eleonora’s falcons, which can also be seen in large groups, or the more solitary golden eagle.

Crete’s Flowers

In spring the Crete countryside is ablaze with colour as wild flowers bloom in every field and crevice. One-third of Greece’s 6,000 plant species can be found on Crete, and nine percent of these are endemic. One of the more unusual is Phoenix theophrasti, a native date palm, a reminder that Crete is as close to North Africa as it is to Athens.

The Cretan Date PalmThe Cretan Date Palm
Photo by Wouter Hagens

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Several dozen African and Asiatic species, as well as plants from the Balkans and Western Europe, are also present on Crete, making it a rich hunting ground for botanists.

Above all, however, Crete is renowned for its wild orchids – there are some 67 varieties to be found around the island – and bulbs, including wild tulips, Cretan iris, and Cretan ebony.

Europe’s Oldest Forest?

Along the tree line (1,500 meters/4,921 feet) of the southern White Mountains are cypress trees that are over 1,000 years old. Not only are they among the oldest trees in Europe, but early signs of coppicing suggest that they may also be the world’s oldest managed forest. At this elevation the tress rarely grow taller than two meters (6-7 feet), but are often larger in diameter than usual. The annual rings on their trunks record climatic changes since Roman times.

Coastal Wildlife

Newly-Hatched Loggerhead Sea TurtlesNewly-Hatched Loggerhead Sea Turtles

The beaches west of Rethymnon, west of Chania, and around Matala on the south coast, are important breeding grounds for the loggerhead sea turtle. These creatures lay their eggs in soft sand at night, and are greatly threatened by tourism development. The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece operates a conservation programme with kiosks in the appropriate resorts to raise awareness of the threat to the turtles.

Most in danger of extinction, though, is the Mediterranean monk seal, which has been seen around islets off the coast of Crete. There are also small populations around Corfu, and Alonissos in the Sporades. In all, though, there are only about 700 seals left, all in isolated pockets in parts of the Mediterranean.

The Cretan Wildcat

The Greek name for the Cretan wildcat is fourokatos, which means the furious cat. This animal was for a long time thought to be a myth until a team of students studying carnivorous animals unexpectedly trapped one in 1996. This astonishing find confirmed reports by shepherds in the Psiloritis Mountains who claimed to have seen this elusive, nocturnal animal.

The captured cat weighed 5.5 kg (12 pounds) and was radio-collared and set free. Sightings are almost non-existent, although the cat has been photographed using photo-traps. It has a tawny coat and a growl like a tiger, but is not in fact related to the cats of mainland Greece or Europe. Instead, it is related to a species from North Africa.


Other Crete pages

  • What was daily life as a Minoan like on Crete, living in palaces like the ones at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros, and what were their religious beliefs?

    Life as a Minoan

    What was daily life as a Minoan like on Crete, living in palaces like the ones at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros, and what were their religious beliefs?

  • Western Crete has some wonderful golden sand beaches as well as mountain villages, monasteries, caves, and archaeological sites to discover.

    Western Crete Beaches and Villages

    Western Crete has some wonderful golden sand beaches as well as mountain villages, monasteries, caves, and archaeological sites to discover.

  • Visiting Knossos near Iraklion is one of the best things to do on Crete, and this page has a history of the site with visitor information.

    Knossos

    Visiting Knossos near Iraklion is one of the best things to do on Crete, and this page has a history of the site with visitor information.

  • The largest of the Greek islands, Crete has four ENUESCO sites, which are Sitia, Psiloritis, Asterousia, and the Gorge of Samaria.

    Crete's UNESCO Sites

    The largest of the Greek islands, Crete has four ENUESCO sites, which are Sitia, Psiloritis, Asterousia, and the Gorge of Samaria.

  • Greece Travel Secrets discovers Sitia, the main town in eastern Crete, with its relaxing waterfront, inexpensive hotels, good food, and nearby ancient sites.

    Sitia

    Greece Travel Secrets discovers Sitia, the main town in eastern Crete, with its relaxing waterfront, inexpensive hotels, good food, and nearby ancient sites.

  • Crete (Kriti) is the largest Greek island and its main attractions include the Minoan Palace of Knossos, the Samarian Gorge, Chania and Rethymnon.

    Crete

    Crete (Kriti) is the largest Greek island and its main attractions include the Minoan Palace of Knossos, the Samarian Gorge, Chania and Rethymnon.

  • How to see eastern Crete in five days, with its beaches, Minoan palaces, timeless villages, unique churches and mountain and coastal scenery.

    Eastern Crete in Five Days

    How to see eastern Crete in five days, with its beaches, Minoan palaces, timeless villages, unique churches and mountain and coastal scenery.

  • Greece Travel Secrets eats at Vegera in Zaros and finds a cheap but wonderful feast of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes cooked daily with fresh local food.

    Dining at Vegera

    Greece Travel Secrets eats at Vegera in Zaros and finds a cheap but wonderful feast of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes cooked daily with fresh local food.

  • Greece Travel Secrets visits the Cretan Botano herbs and spices shop near Matala in southern Crete in search of the herb man of Kouses.

    The Herb Man of Kouses

    Greece Travel Secrets visits the Cretan Botano herbs and spices shop near Matala in southern Crete in search of the herb man of Kouses.

  • Malia on the north coast of Crete is renowned for its nightlife and beaches but also has the Minoan Palace of Malia, one of Crete's many archaeological sites.

    Malia and its Minoan Palace on Crete

    Malia on the north coast of Crete is renowned for its nightlife and beaches but also has the Minoan Palace of Malia, one of Crete's many archaeological sites.

  • For a Crete olive oil tour Greece Travel Secrets visits Biolea, one of the few olive oil factories on Crete that you can visit.

    Crete Olive Oil Tour

    For a Crete olive oil tour Greece Travel Secrets visits Biolea, one of the few olive oil factories on Crete that you can visit.

  • The Snails House in Plouti near Phaistos in southern Crete serves the Cretan delicacy of snails, cooked in several different ways.

    The Snails House on Crete

    The Snails House in Plouti near Phaistos in southern Crete serves the Cretan delicacy of snails, cooked in several different ways.

  • Greece Travel Secrets’ potted guide to Eastern Crete and why you should consider it for a holiday, including seeing Agios Nikolaos, Sitia, Vai Beach and Zakros.

    Eastern Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets’ potted guide to Eastern Crete and why you should consider it for a holiday, including seeing Agios Nikolaos, Sitia, Vai Beach and Zakros.

  • Western Crete in five days allows time to visit Chania and Rethymnon, enjoy the beaches, hike the Samaria Gorge and see the monasteries at Arkadi and Preveli.

    Western Crete in Five Days

    Western Crete in five days allows time to visit Chania and Rethymnon, enjoy the beaches, hike the Samaria Gorge and see the monasteries at Arkadi and Preveli.

  • Greece Travel Secrets recommends where to eat in Western Crete with tavernas and restaurants in Chania, Rethymnon, and Paleochora.

    Where to Eat in Western Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets recommends where to eat in Western Crete with tavernas and restaurants in Chania, Rethymnon, and Paleochora.

  • These shopping tips for Crete include advice on buying souvenirs like ceramics, icons, jewellery, leather, weavings, wood carvings, and food and drink.

    Shopping Tips for Crete

    These shopping tips for Crete include advice on buying souvenirs like ceramics, icons, jewellery, leather, weavings, wood carvings, and food and drink.

  • Greece Travel Secrets recommends where to stay in Irakleio, the capital of Crete, including nearby beach resort hotels and accommodation in the city centre.

    Where to Stay in Irakleio

    Greece Travel Secrets recommends where to stay in Irakleio, the capital of Crete, including nearby beach resort hotels and accommodation in the city centre.

  • Crete festivals and events include Carnival Easter, Whitsun, Christmas, many other religious feast days and public holidays.

    Crete Festivals and Events

    Crete festivals and events include Carnival Easter, Whitsun, Christmas, many other religious feast days and public holidays.

  • The Byzantine Church of Panagía Kerá near Kritsa and not far from Ayios Nikolaos is one of the most famous in Crete, and close by is the site of Ancient Lato.

    Kritsá, Lato, and Panagía Kerá

    The Byzantine Church of Panagía Kerá near Kritsa and not far from Ayios Nikolaos is one of the most famous in Crete, and close by is the site of Ancient Lato.

  • Cretan music is part of the island’s soul and visitors will hear live music wherever they go, with several distinctive Cretan musical instruments and songs.

    Cretan Music

    Cretan music is part of the island’s soul and visitors will hear live music wherever they go, with several distinctive Cretan musical instruments and songs.

  • The best things to do on Crete and top things to see include the Samaria Gorge, the Minoan Palaces at Knossos and Phaistos, the towns of Chania and Rethymnon.

    Best Things to Do on Crete

    The best things to do on Crete and top things to see include the Samaria Gorge, the Minoan Palaces at Knossos and Phaistos, the towns of Chania and Rethymnon.

  • Chania is the main city in Western Crete with a lovely setting and a beautiful harbour as well as several museums.

    Chania, in Western Crete

    Chania is the main city in Western Crete with a lovely setting and a beautiful harbour as well as several museums.

  • The Battle of Crete during World War 2 inspired several books and took place with an airborne invasion over Maleme on the north coast of the island.

    Battle of Crete

    The Battle of Crete during World War 2 inspired several books and took place with an airborne invasion over Maleme on the north coast of the island.

  • Ancient Gournia is a Minoan archaeological site between Agios Nikolaos and Sitia in Eastern Crete where the visitor can see evidence of a maze of back streets.

    Ancient Gournia Minoan Site in Eastern Crete

    Ancient Gournia is a Minoan archaeological site between Agios Nikolaos and Sitia in Eastern Crete where the visitor can see evidence of a maze of back streets.

  • The travel tale Our Hire Car in Crete describes what it’s like when you go driving in Greece and get off the beaten track, resulting in kindnesses.

    Our Hire Car in Crete

    The travel tale Our Hire Car in Crete describes what it’s like when you go driving in Greece and get off the beaten track, resulting in kindnesses.

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

Latest Posts

  1. Weather with heavy rain and storms in Greece as of Sunday night

    Heavy rain and storms are expected to sweep the country of Greece, starting in the west, and spreading to the central and eastern mainland, the Cyclades islands and Crete, and, lastly, the Eastern Aeg…

    Read More

  2. Flights to/from Greece to Operate Normally on Wednesday, February 28

    Flights to and from Greece will operate as scheduled on Wednesday, February 28, due to the cancellation of the strike announced by the country’s air traffic controllers union. The strike, announced on…

    Read More

  3. Athens Welcomes Carnival Season with Dozens of Free Events

    The municipality of Athens welcomes Carnival season with 80 events at 55 locations across the city and invites residents and visitors to join the fun. On Tsiknopempti, March 7, a large parade will hea…

    Read More

  4. February 28 Strike in Greece to Affect Public Transport, Ferry & Air Travel

    Public transportation in Athens as well as ferry and air travel in Greece will be disrupted on Wednesday, February 28, due to a 24-hour strike called by the Greek Civil Servants’ Confederation (ADEDY…

    Read More

  5. AEGEAN: Travelers Can Change February 28 Tickets Due to Potential Strike

    In view of a potential strike of air traffic controllers on Wednesday, February 28, Greek airline company AEGEAN issued an announcement for passengers scheduled to travel on AEGEAN and Olympic Air fli…

    Read More

  6. Netflix Series ‘One Day’ Shows Paros Island to the World

    The Greek island of Paros is gaining worldwide exposure as the backdrop of the popular “One Day” series currently streaming on Netflix. Filming took place on the island in September 2022 at Santa Mari…

    Read More

  7. General Strike in Greece May Ground All Flights on February 28

    Flights to and from Greece are expected to be canceled on Wednesday, February 28, after the country’s air traffic controllers union announced that they would be participating in a 24-hour general work…

    Read More

  8. TripAdvisor: Greek Beaches on Best Lists of World, Europe for 2024

    Four beaches in Greece are among the “Best of the Best” Beaches of the World and Europe, according to TripAdvisor‘s Travelers’ Choice Awards, while two are also included on the list of Best Sustainabl…

    Read More

  9. BoG: 32.7 Million Travelers Chose Greece in 2023

    A total of 32.7 million travelers from across the globe chose to visit Greece in 2023, up 17.6 percent from 27.8 million in 2022, according to data released Wednesday by the Bank of Greece (BoG).

    Read More

  10. Christian Community Living in Primitive Conditions Discovered in Greece

    Police recently arrested the father of a family living an “early Christian” community lifestyle in a basic hut on the Peloponnese in a case dubbed the “Amish” of Greece. The extended family was living…

    Read More