Scientists at Conservation International (CI) report that 46 reptile species native to the Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot are facing extinction largely because of ongoing habitat destruction and other human activities. Published this year, the study by 28 leading experts also submitted nearly half of the region's 355 snake, lizard, and turtle varieties for inclusion in the IUCN-World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Species, updated this May.
For nearly a year, scientists gathered data around the Mediterranean coasts of North Africa, Southern Europe, and the Middle East, showing that nearly half of the Mediterranean's reptiles are endemic, found nowhere else on the planet. This is a characteristic of all the newly listed Critically Endangered species that adds special urgency to their protection, because such creatures can never be replaced.
Building on the success of the continuing Global Amphibian Assessment, these findings were the first from the Global Reptile Assessment (GRA), an international partnership between IUCN, CI, and NatureServe to document the worldwide status of all reptile species. It also provides scientists with hard evidence about the effects of threats like climate change, human encroachment, or invasive species on these animals and their habitats.
For example, feral cats on the Canary Island of Las Palmas have become the island's top predator and a highly destructive invasive species. During the last few centuries they hunted Las Palmas' unique foot-long giant skinks (Gallotia auaritae
) to extinction, and could do the same to the remaining three Critically Endangered Gallotia
species if current conservation measures are not effectively maintained. Declining numbers of two species of Iberian rock lizards (Iberolacerta
spp.) that only live in Spain's northern and western mountains, provide scientific evidence that these vital montane watersheds are drying up, probably because of long-term shifts in climate posing dire consequences for human populations in parts of the country.
Farther south, the Aeolian wall lizard (Podarcis raffonei
) is uniquely adapted to the scruffy, hardscrabble landscape of the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago off the northern coast of Sicily. But when its larger cousin, the Italian wall lizard ( P. sicula
) arrived from the mainland probably with people it aggressively dominated raffonei
. As a result, endemic Aeolian wall lizard populations have fallen dramatically.
The tiny, checkered shells of two tortoise species (Testudo kleinmanni
and T. werneri
) native to the Egyptian desert, have made them extremely valuable to the international pet trade. Living on alternate sides of the Nile River, they are among the smallest and rarest tortoises on Earth, all too easy for dealers to pocket and smuggle. Sadly, few survive in captivity for more than a few months because they require special desert grasses and a low humidity environment. Like so many other Mediterranean reptiles now on the Red List, only a few thousand of both these tortoise species are left.
"To lose such beautiful, ecologically important animals would be a supreme tragedy," says Neil Cox, an IUCN scientist at CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS) and one of the GRA team. "They not only help make Mediterranean ecosystems work, they are part of our natural heritage that we are losing every year."
Having completed the Mediterranean survey, Cox and the GRA scientists will head north to begin assessments of reptiles of the Caucasus Biodiversity Hotspot. Once complete, information from the GRA will help researchers design an effective worldwide conservation action plan to protect threatened reptiles, much as 2005's Global Amphibian Summit did for vanishing frogs, salamanders, and worm-like caecilians. It is hoped that similar global assessments of many key animal and plant groups will soon provide the scientific foundation for conservation of all the planet's threatened species before they vanish forever.