A look at the ecosystems, plants, animals, and geological and A look at the ecosystems, plants, animals, and geological and fossil history of this Greek island in southeastern Europe, among the largest in the Mediterranean. This exhibition is part of the 3-year collaboration initiative between the Natural History Museum of Crete and the Yale Peabody Museum supported by the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation.
Humans have been continuously present on the island since arriving 8,000 years ago during the Neolithic. Notable in this history is the Minoan civilization, which arose 4,800 years ago and lasted for more than 1,000 years. Yet despite this long history of human habitation, the Cretan environment remains very diverse. The high mountains of central and western Crete are its main geographic feature. Its eastern end is the sunniest and driest area of Europe.
Above an altitude of one mile animals and low thorny shrubs have adapted to the extreme alpine conditions. Snow cover lasts for nearly 8 months, while summers are dry and hot. Below the timberline are found forests of cypress, pine, abundant evergreen “prickly oak” and other deciduous oaks, and palms. Maquis or phrygana shrublands characterize the lower elevations, where aromatic plants such as thyme, oregano, laurel and rosemary are predominant. Crete has only one natural lake and, while there are few rivers with year-round running water, streams can be seen everywhere on the island.
The nearby Balkan Peninsula is one of the richest areas in the Mediterranean for plant diversity. On Crete especially there are 210 plant species per 600 square miles (compared to only 2 or 3 species in comparable areas on mainland Europe). Within Crete’s rich flora — 1,700 plant species —is a high percentage of endemic plants: 160 species occur nowhere else in the world. Among these, 13 species face extinction.
The rich fauna of Crete, like its flora, is a result of the island’s geographic position, its long isolation from surrounding land masses, the patchiness of its ecosystems, the bold relief of its topography and its long history of human activity. On the main migration route from Africa to central and northern Europe, the island is exceptionally rich in birds of prey. Both of Greece’s only 2 native mammal species are found only on Crete: the Cretan Shrew (Crocidura zimmermanni) and the Cretan Spiny Mouse (Acomys minous). A very rich fauna of invertebrates includes many endemic species; in some groups, such as land snails or darkling beetles, over 40% of the species are unique to Crete.
As on many Mediterranean islands during Pleistocene (2 million years to 15,000 years ago), Crete had either giant forms of small animals or dwarf forms of large animals. Sadly all these animals are now extinct.
The dwarf hippopotamus Hippopotamus creutzburgi reached only 5 to 6.5 feet in length and 3 feet in height.
The dwarf elephant Elephas creticus grew only to 3.9 feet tall.
Crete was also home to the much larger “elephant” Deinotherium, a large proboscidean that lived in Eurasia and Africa from the Miocene to the Pleistocene (2 million years to 10,000 years ago). Unlike modern elephants, Deinotherium’s tusks were on its lower jaw and faced the ground.
Land first appeared in the Aegean during the early Miocene (23 million years ago). The island of Crete took its present shape during the early Pleistocene, some 2 million years ago. Today Crete, subject to intense seismic activity because of its location near the African tectonic plate and the Anatolia-microplate is simultaneously being uplifted and moved south, about an inch each year.
Established in 1981, the Natural History Museum of Crete, part of the University of Crete, is already known as an important institution for the study of the eastern Mediterranean. It plays a significant role in environmental education, and raises public awareness about associated issues through its pure and applied research on the protection and conservation of the environment.
As a result of expanded expeditions beyond Greece to the southern and eastern Mediterranean basin, the NHMC’s zoological collections have grown substantially. Its land snail collection is the largest and most complete Aegean collection in the world. The beetle collection, the largest in Greece, represents the entire Mediterranean area. The mammal collection includes all the mammal species of the Aegean. Thousands of plant specimens from Crete, the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean are stored in its herbarium. Among the NHMC’s most ambitious projects is to create a detailed database of the distribution of all of Crete’s plants and animals.
Yale Students and Researchers Study Turtles in Crete