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Greek conservationists collaborate to protect endemic species in face of climate change

  • Across Greece, conservation NGOs are working in close collaboration to study and save numerous endemic species found nowhere else.
  • Often working in areas famed for Greek mythology like Mount Olympus and Mount Oiti, the plants and animals now need what seems like divine intervention to survive the ravages brought by climate change.
  • Why so many endemic species? Greece has “an amazing diversity of climates and also soils. This creates an amazing diversity of life,” one conservationist tells Mongabay.

High above sea level on the central Greek mountain of Oiti, the mythological place of Hercules’ funeral, snow melts in the springtime. As the soil becomes wet, grasses start growing and ponds that last three months or longer per year begin to form.

When the weather warms, the ponds, once up to half a meter (1.5 feet) deep, evaporate, and a flower species with four dot-sized white petals sprouts, typically in May. These dried ponds on Mount Oiti are the only place in the world where it’s possible to find the tiny flower Veronica oetaea.

Since 2013, scientists at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens have annually monitored the dwarf flower’s population across the three pond sites where it’s found. Scientists have recorded tens of thousands of flowers in all the sites every June — until 2021, when they recorded the flower in only one dried pond.

Central Greece has experienced unusually early warm spring weather for the past four years, especially in 2021. The plant likely bloomed earlier than normal, because ponds dried quicker, and in smaller populations, said Avra Stamellou, a biologist at Mount Oiti National Park who arranges researchers’ visits to the mountain.

Landscape of Mount Oiti. Image courtesy of the Mount Oiti National Park Management Body.

The survey results show how much changes in the weather’s timing can disturb a flower’s life cycle. In Europe, climate change has driven a trend of early spring weather for two decades, as reported in a 2020 Global Change Biology study. If Greece’s early springs become more consistent, they will place V. oetaea at extinction risk, Stamellou said.

“I think the species will disappear very soon. Now, it’s close to disappear[ing]. I think in the future, you won’t have this species, at least, in the two lowest ponds,” Stamellou said in an interview with Mongabay.

The Mediterranean Basin is a global hotspot for limited-range (or endemic) species. The Greek government’s biodiversity conservation plan reported that 22% of plant species in Greece are found only in Greece, one of the highest proportions of any European nation. The country also has more than 4,000 unique animals, mostly insects and several vertebrates.

Some of Greece’s endemic species are restricted to a single mountaintop, lake, island or national park — which makes them vulnerable to extinction amid disturbances like a changing climate. Habitat destruction and unsustainable farming practices also threaten such species.

Discussions of how to protect endemic species has taken center stage at the United Nations Biodiversity Conferences. These meetings between governments from around the world, including Greece, have led to the signing of international treaties aiming to prevent extinctions.

As the world prepares for the 15th Biodiversity Conference starting on April 25, groups across Greece are collaborating to conserve rare plants and animals. Partnerships between national parks, universities and nongovernmental organizations have helped to preserve the Mediterranean country’s biodiversity.

During the annual surveys of V. oetaea, researchers transport seeds back to a seed bank at the University of Athens, where they grow plants in dishes to study their required developmental conditions. The university has stored the seeds of more than 400 rare plant species, in case they’re needed for reintroductions.

The flower Veronica oetaea is found only in three temporary ponds on Mount Oiti. Image courtesy of George Karetsos.

At Mount Oiti, the university’s scientists collaborate with members of the national park’s management body to enrich the population of V. oetaea. During autumn, they disperse some of the seeds from the bank in metal discs with soil from the flower’s three native ponds.

Each of Greece’s 10 national parks has a management body, typically around a dozen members, to preserve natural resources and to educate visitors about the landscape. As a member of Mount Oiti National Park’s management body, Stamellou coordinates European Union-funded programs to conserve the habitat of vulnerable species. Sixty-seven of the mountain’s plants are protected under international or Greek law, like the endangered V. oetaea.

To provide the flower with enough room to grow, management body members pull out overgrown shrubs that have increasingly dominated one dried temporary pond in late spring. Before initiatives to remove the shrub by hand, it covered the majority of the pond’s surface some years.

The management body also works with the university to introduce V. oetaea into a mountain pond where it hasn’t been recorded before. Another temporary pond could provide a suitable habitat for the flower, a 2015 study found, but nothing is certain because of how picky the flower is.

“It’s in the experimental stage right now. We are trying to see how the seeds that we put in the ponds act and survive,” Stamellou said.

Annual survey of the flower Veronica oetaea on Mount Oiti, for a European Union-funded project called ForOpenForests. Image courtesy of Christos Georgiadis.

Protections in Prespa

Far north of Mount Oiti, two lakes and their surrounding wetlands straddle the borders of a trio of countries: Greece, North Macedonia and Albania. These lakes area home to nine fish species found nowhere else.

These fish are just some of the aquatic lifeforms unique to the Prespa region, said Giorgos Catsadorakis, a Greek conservation biologist who has worked in Prespa for decades.

Other endemics include freshwater mussels, arthropods, mollusks and plankton. Researchers are still trying to understand the role these species play in the lakes’ ecosystem and how a trend of less precipitation in Prespa, driven by climate change, could threaten them.

“Most of these endemic organisms, because they are small, they’re not studied enough,” Catsadorakis said in an interview.

Catsadorakis works for the Society for the Protection of Prespa, a nongovernmental organization he helped to start in the 1990s. He said the organization aims to conserve the ecosystem, rather than just one species, in Prespa’s trinational region, which includes a Greek national park.

One of the organization’s most successful projects is removing overgrown reeds from the shallow edges of the lakes, where pelicans (Pelecanidae) and herons (Ardeidae) feed on aquatic organisms. Keeping the edges clear creates space for the birds to feed and endemic fish to spawn.

Two lakes in the Prespa region, which straddle the borders of three countries. Image courtesy of Giorgos Catsadorakis.

The society works with the Greek farmers around Prespa to reduce their use of synthetic fertilizers, which enters lakes and boosts phytoplankton populations, disrupting the ecosystem’s balance.

Prespa’s lakes are surrounded by 14,000 hectares (34,600 acres) of farmland growing beans, apples and vegetables. Some of these growers have started to use organic fertilizers more, like manure, which is less harmful. Catsadorakis said his organization provides farmers with shredded reeds for their soil, so the ground can better retain fertilizer, minimizing how much enters the lakes.

Building on this progress in shifting toward sustainable agriculture must involve working with farmers across three nations, who speak different languages, Catsadorakis said.

“You have to work with all these people. You have to try to find solutions that are not harmful to the environment but at the same time, they allow these farmers to do their work and earn their living,” he said.

Why so many endemics?

To see why Greece has so many endemic species, “You just have to look at Greece on the map,” said Miltos Gletsos, conservation coordinator for the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature (HSPN), the country’s oldest environmentally focused nongovernmental organization.

From the forest-covered north to the arid south near the coastline, the country is divided by mountains. Greece has thousands of islands, deep gorges and freshwater rivers isolated from the continent’s major riverways. This fragmented landscape, Gletsos said, has isolated species and given them time to evolve from their ancestors. Greece also has a diversity of habitats since it’s at the crossroads of the Balkan Mountains, East Asia and North Africa.

“You have an amazing diversity of climates and also soils. This creates an amazing diversity of life,” Gletsos told Mongabay.

The Lefka Ori mountains contain many plants endemic to the mountain range. Image courtesy of the Samaria National Park Management Body – West Crete.

Disturbances to habitats like excessive development threaten many endemic species across Greece. Nearly 20% of the country’s endemic plants are vulnerable to extinction under the IUCN Red List.

To preserve biodiverse areas, Greece’s government created 10 legally protected national forests starting in 1938, many of which later became national parks. Mount Olympus, whose summit held the mythological throne of Zeus, was one of the first national forests, and later became a national park, which hosts 1,700 species. That includes 27 plants that are endemic to the mountain.

The range of human activities allowed within a national park depends on how vulnerable the habitat is. On the border of national parks, amenities for visitors like hotels and restaurants are typically allowed, along with organized camping. Inside parks, many areas allow visitors, while areas with extremely vulnerable species prohibit any human activity beyond scientific research.

Petros Lymberakis, president of the management body for Samaria National Park in Crete, Greece’s largest island, coordinates efforts to preserve the park’s natural landscape.

Even for the Mediterranean, Crete has an exceptional abundance of endemic species, Lymberakis said.

The island began rising from the Aegean Sea 12 million years ago, after tectonic plates collided. Originally, the landscape was flat, far from today’s mountains and evergreen forests. As mountains rose from tectonic activity, species that arrived on the island became isolated and differentiated.

“These species could be found only in a few square meters on a mountaintop or a gorge,” Lymberakis said in an interview.

In western Crete’s Lefka Ori mountains, within the national park, there are 25 species found nowhere else. This includes an endangered yellow flower, Bupleurum kakiskalae, which grows only on a few mountains’ summits.

Mountaintop plants endemic to Crete will become more endangered as climate change progresses, a model from a 2020 study in Biology Journal predicted. To escape a warming climate, mountain plants sometimes move higher in elevation to find a suitable temperature. For species already at the summit, that’s not possible.

“If climate change forces you to go up higher to find the specific refuge and you can’t go anywhere, you just disappear,” Lymberakis said.

To protect endangered mountain plants, the park’s management body has worked with the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania to collect seeds and store them at the institute’s seed bank. The institute has experimented with using seeds to grow plants in their native habitat, other potentially suitable habitats, and their botanical gardens.

Help from the European Union

Since the 1950s, the HSPN has helped to create national parks through writing legal documents and lobbying. This decade, the society has directed research and conservation projects in protected areas in collaboration with other institutions, through an EU-funded program called LIFE.

One LIFE project completed in 2019 involved recruiting botanists from the University of Athens to monitor the population of the flower Veronica oetaea. During the five-year project, a team led by botanist Pinelopi Delipetrou went to Mount Oiti annually. By hand, they counted the number of dwarf flowers within 50 square centimeters (8 square inches) of the dried ponds to estimate the population, as recorded in a documentary the HSPN produced.

Delipetrou died in June 2020, but her influence continues, said Stamellou. The university and the park’s management body continue their collaboration to protect the flower.

“She was a very nice person and a very good scientist. She had an influence not only in our mountain but other mountains of Greece,” Stamellou said.

The HSPN also collaborated on a LIFE project that concluded in December 2021 to collect data on environmental crimes in Crete, which helps law enforcement focus its monitoring. During the project, two lawyer’s associations created an interactive map to highlight hotspots for illegal activities like poaching, which sometimes targets a wild goat endemic to the island’s Lefka Ori mountains.

Six thousand years ago, Crete’s residents brought goats of Middle Eastern ancestry to the island, which eventually drifted genetically to become their own breed, the kri-kri (Capra aegagrus cretica).

Poachers sometime target the kri-kri, a goat breed endemic to Crete. Image courtesy of the Samaria National Park Management Body – West Crete.

On Crete, it’s illegal to hunt kri-kri. Poaching of the goat to sell its meat surged in the late 1990s, but it has slowed down since then, Lymberakis said.

Illegal hunting today mostly targets other animals. The LIFE project’s map shows more than 80 illegal hunting cases in Crete since 2010, including hunting in protected areas, with vehicles, or outside of the permitted season.

The map also identified hotspots for illegal logging, dumping of oil factory waste, and other crimes that degrade habitat, which could harm vulnerable plants. With the help of workshops organized during the project, residents of Crete learned how to identify and anonymously report environmental crimes through a mobile app.

To protect endemic species, an EU-wide network of protected areas called Natura 2000 has become a powerful tool. Human activities must be balanced with ecosystem protection in Natura 2000 areas, which cover 18% of all land across 27 EU countries.

At Parnassos National Park on a central Greek mountain, the management body uses the network to protect habitats that contain rare or threatened plants, birds and other animals. There, on Mount Parnassos, where ancient Greeks voyaged to seek wisdom from the oracle of Delphi, there are six plant species that blossom only in the space between the mountain’s boulders.

The mountain’s limestone terraces some 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level may seem inhospitable, but it’s possibly the only habitat fit for one shrub species with dozens of narrow, yellow petals, Centaurea musarum.

“Those plants are only found on the mountain of Parnassos. Some of them are found only on a boulder,” Giorgos Varvarigos, a member of the park’s management body, said in an email.

Varvarigos, who has worked on Mount Parnassos for nine years, said creating Natura 2000 areas in habitats with endemic plants helps the staff know where to focus population monitoring. The management body regularly monitors the mountain’s vulnerable species, including plants that are protected under national or international lists.

Natura 2000 also provides additional legal protections for easily disturbed habitats, like the mountain’s high-elevation, rocky surfaces. While the entire park is already protected under Greek law, adding protections to specific areas through Natura 2000 can help exclude harmful human activities near extremely vulnerable species.

“We are on the right path [to] protect its nature, and, of course, the nature of Parnassos Mountain,” Varvarigos said.

View of Mount Parnassos. Image courtesy of the Parnassos National Park Management Body.

Adapting to climate change

Southern Greece, including the Attic Peninsula and Evia Island, has a variety of flowers found only in that region, according to an HSPN field guide.

Last summer, nearly 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) burned across southern Greece in the country’s most damaging fire season since 2007. Massive heat waves created dry conditions and exacerbated multiple fires that burned simultaneously.

In the northern evergreen forests of Evia Island, residents evacuated their homes by boat during Greece’s single largest fire in history.

Gletsos said that one exceptionally large wildfire won’t typically threaten endemic flowers. That’s because Mediterranean region plants evolved in a climate where summertime fires are common, and some even thrive after mild fires.

But a trend of more frequent mega fires would take plants out of the environment they’ve adapted to survive in, he said. A 2020 study in Scientific Reports predicts that climate change will contribute to larger and more frequent fire outbreaks in the Mediterranean Basin.

If increased wildfires happen simultaneously with other threats — like excessive livestock grazing or uncontrolled development of roads and tourist amenities — it could threaten some plants with extinction.

“These plants have the mechanisms to adapt to wildfire,” Gletsos said. “Now if you have, of course, many wildfires in a row, then you have other issues. Maybe the soil will wash out and you will have deterioration of the quality of the habitat.”

Mount Parnassos was safe from the fires this past August, but it experienced a prolonged drought. Varvarigos said that if droughts and temperatures increase in central Greece because of climate change, it may force plants to migrate farther north.

Catsadorakis said the three countries that share the Prespa region have one enemy in common: climate change.

Over the past 20 years, there has been less rain and snow in Prespa. Typically, the lakes’ edges flood in the springtime, but now, water levels are often too low to satisfy pelicans and other birds that visit to feed.

The Society for the Protection of Prespa has worked to adapt its conservation measures to account for climate change’s effects, like higher temperatures and quicker oxygen depletion from lakes.

Adapting isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to preserve Prespa’s vibrant ecosystem, Catsadorakis said.

“Every year, it’s becoming more difficult to secure enough water resources and enough feeding sites for birds and everything,” he said. “But we are still working towards this direction. This is at the center of our work and interest.”

View all of this reporter’s articles for Mongabay here and find his latest thoughts on Twitter via @evanbourtis.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: What conservation techniques work best? We examine the evidence, listen here:

Citations:

Menzel, A., Yuan, Y., Matiu, M., Sparks, T., Scheifinger, H., Gehrig, R., & Estrella, N. (2020). Climate change fingerprints in recent European plant phenology. Global Change Biology26(4), 2599-2612. doi:10.1111/gcb.15000

Karetsos, G., Solomou, A. D., Trigas, P., & Tsagari, K. (2018). The vascular flora of Mt. Oiti National Park and the surrounding area in Greece. Journal of Forest Science64(10), 435-454. doi:10.17221/65/2018-jfs

Catsadorakis, G., Papadopoulou, E., Petrakos, M., & Koutseri, I. (2018). Status of fisheries at Megali Prespa Lake and Mikri Prespa Lake, Greece, based on a census of fishermen’s opinions. Environment and Ecology Research6(6), 583-592. doi:10.13189/eer.2018.060608

Kougioumoutzis, K., Kokkoris, I. P., Panitsa, M., Trigas, P., Strid, A., & Dimopoulos, P. (2020). Spatial phylogenetics, biogeographical patterns and conservation implications of the endemic flora of Crete (Aegean, Greece) under climate change scenarios. Biology9(8), 199. doi:10.3390/biology9080199

Horwitz, L. K., & Bar-Gal, G. K. (2006). The origin and genetic status of insular caprines in the Eastern Mediterranean: A case study of free-ranging goats (Capra aegagrus cretica) on Crete. Human Evolution21(2), 123-138. doi:10.1007/s11598-006-9015-8

Ruffault, J., Curt, T., Moron, V., Trigo, R. M., Mouillot, F., Koutsias, N., … Belhadj-Khedher, C. (2020). Increased likelihood of heat-induced large wildfires in the Mediterranean Basin. Scientific Reports10(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-020-70069-z