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

  • 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.

  • West Coast of Crete Drive

    This drive along the west coast of Crete and inland from there will take a whole day and starts and ends in Kastélli Kissámou, west of Chania.

  • How to Make Petimezi

    How to make Petimezi, the sweet Cretan syrup made from wine must, is explained to Greece Travel Secrets.

  • Airbnb near Chania

    This Airbnb in the quiet village of Malaxa, a 30-minute drive into the hills above Chania, is a peaceful retreat with a delightful and thoughtful artist owner, with wonderful views and amenities.

  • Rouvas Gorge Walk

    This Rouvas Gorge walk starts and ends in Zaros in southern Crete and should take three to four hours with a distance of eight kilometres or five miles.

  • Where to Stay in Central Crete

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

  • Sir Arthur Evans, archaeologist at Knossos on Crete

    Sir Arthur Evans is the archaeologist famous for the excavations he made at the royal palace of Knossos on Crete.

  • Crete Festivals and Events

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

  • 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.

  • Where to Eat in Eastern Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets recommends where to eat in Eastern Crete including restaurants and tavernas in Elounda, Agios Nikolaos, Sitia, and Kato Zakros.

  • 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.

  • Hiking the Samaria Gorge

    Hiking the Samaria Gorge on Crete, one of the best things to do on Crete, by Greece Travel Secrets.

  • Lonely Planet Crete

    Lonely Planet Crete is an excellent and thorough guide of almost 300 pages to the largest of the Greek islands.

  • Best Beaches on Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets chooses ten of the best beaches on Crete including the beautiful beaches at Vai and Elafonisi.

  • Diktean Cave, the Birthplace of Zeus near Psychro on Crete

    The Diktean or Diktaean Cave, also known as the Psychro Cave, near the village of Psychro in eastern Crete, is said to be the birthplace of Zeus.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Eco-Tourism Accommodation on Crete

    The Dalabelos Estate offers luxury eco-tourism accommodation on Crete in the hills near Rethymnon with its own farm, vineyard and olive groves.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Best Crete Hotels

    The best Crete hotels include 5-star luxury hotels, historic and romantic Venetian palaces, and several hotels in Hania and Iraklion.

  • 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.

  • Keramos Studios in Zaros

    Keramos Studios in Zaros on Crete is an inexpensive two-star hotel/guesthouse with one of the best breakfasts on the island using food from the family’s farm.

  • The Icon Painter

    Icon painting is a centuries-old tradition in Crete and the rest of Greece, and Greece Travel Secrets meets a modern-day icon painter in Elounda on Crete.

  • Art Courses on Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets visits Visual Arts Crete who offer accommodation and run art courses at their home and studio in the village of Kastellos near Rethymnon.

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