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.

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.

Where to Stay on Crete


Other Crete pages

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    Lasithi Plateau Drive

    This Lasithi Plateau drive on Crete starts in Neapoli and ends in Malia, covering a distance of 80 km (50 miles) and taking two to three hours.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • Greece Travel Secrets visits Crete and learns about making rakomelo from Jorgos Kourmoulis in Agouseliana.

    Making Rakomelo on Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets visits Crete and learns about making rakomelo from Jorgos Kourmoulis in Agouseliana.

  •  Rethymnon is the third-largest city in Crete and has a Venetian fortress, Archaeological Museum, Old Town area and Venetian harbour,

    Rethymnon in Western Crete

    Rethymnon is the third-largest city in Crete and has a Venetian fortress, Archaeological Museum, Old Town area and Venetian harbour,

  • Driving central Crete in three days gives you time to see the highlights including the Minoan palaces at Knossos and Phaistos, the beaches and the Diktean Cave.

    Central Crete in Three Days

    Driving central Crete in three days gives you time to see the highlights including the Minoan palaces at Knossos and Phaistos, the beaches and the Diktean Cave.

  • 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.

  • We visit and tour the Manousakis Winery on Crete with a wine-tasting and a chance to buy their tsikoudia, sea salt, olive oil and other goodies.

    Manousakis Wine Tasting

    We visit and tour the Manousakis Winery on Crete with a wine-tasting and a chance to buy their tsikoudia, sea salt, olive oil and other goodies.

  • 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.

  • 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 goes hiking in southwest Crete with Ramblers Walking Holidays based in Paleohora and hiking the E4 footpath and to Anidri and Azogires.

    Hiking in Southwest Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets goes hiking in southwest Crete with Ramblers Walking Holidays based in Paleohora and hiking the E4 footpath and to Anidri and Azogires.

  • The Goules Taverna in Goulediana, south of Rethymnon, has been called one of the best tavernas on Crete and Greece Travel Secrets recently visited them.

    Goules Taverna Crete

    The Goules Taverna in Goulediana, south of Rethymnon, has been called one of the best tavernas on Crete and Greece Travel Secrets recently visited them.

  • This olive grove walk from Limnes to Vrises on Crete also takes you through orchards and gives close-up views of some of the island’s windmills.

    Olive Grove Walk

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  • The most famous Cretan writers and artists include the painter El Greco and the author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis.

    Cretan Writers and Artists

    The most famous Cretan writers and artists include the painter El Greco and the author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis.

  • Greece Travel Secrets page on  Phaistos or Faistos, the site of one of the finest Minoan palaces on Crete and is where the mysterious Phaistos Disc was found.

    Phaistos Minoan Palace on Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets page on Phaistos or Faistos, the site of one of the finest Minoan palaces on Crete and is where the mysterious Phaistos Disc was found.

  • Ancient Gortina is an archaeological site in southern Crete famous for the church of Ayios Titos and for the Law Code inscribed here, the first in Europe.

    Gortina ancient archaeological site in southern Crete

    Ancient Gortina is an archaeological site in southern Crete famous for the church of Ayios Titos and for the Law Code inscribed here, the first in Europe.

  • 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.

  • Is someone from Crete a Greek or a Cretan? They are both, of course, but most will tell you that they are Cretan first and Greek second.

    Greek or Cretan?

    Is someone from Crete a Greek or a Cretan? They are both, of course, but most will tell you that they are Cretan first and Greek second.

  • The area east from Paleohora along the south-west coast of Crete includes resorts like Agia Galini, gorges like the Imbros Gorge and quieter towns like Sfakia.

    Paleohora and the South-West Coast

    The area east from Paleohora along the south-west coast of Crete includes resorts like Agia Galini, gorges like the Imbros Gorge and quieter towns like Sfakia.

  • Crete's capital and largest city is Irakleio, also called Iraklion or Heraklion, a large and busy place with good restaurants, museums and historical buildings.

    Irakleio

    Crete's capital and largest city is Irakleio, also called Iraklion or Heraklion, a large and busy place with good restaurants, museums and historical buildings.

  • Elounda on Crete's north coast is a popular holiday town with a pretty harbour, from where you can take day trips by boat to see the island of Spinalonga.

    Elounda and Spinalonga, setting for The Island by Victoria Hislop

    Elounda on Crete's north coast is a popular holiday town with a pretty harbour, from where you can take day trips by boat to see the island of Spinalonga.

  • Greece Travel Secrets tours the Lyrarakis Winery on Crete and learns about Crete grape varieties such as plyto, dafni, vidiano, vilana, mandilari and kotsifali.

    Touring the Lyrarakis Winery on Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets tours the Lyrarakis Winery on Crete and learns about Crete grape varieties such as plyto, dafni, vidiano, vilana, mandilari and kotsifali.

  • 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.

  • Driving on Crete is the best way to see Greece’s biggest island and here is our driving advice and some information about Greek driving regulations.

    Driving on Crete

    Driving on Crete is the best way to see Greece’s biggest island and here is our driving advice and some information about Greek driving regulations.

  • Greece Travel Secrets recommends where to stay in Central Crete including hotels in Matala, Ayia Galini, and Zaros.

    Where to Stay in Central Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets recommends where to stay in Central Crete including hotels in Matala, Ayia Galini, and Zaros.

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