Monday, June 8, 2009

Part II: The endemic species of the Maltese Islands

The Maltese Islands, though small, boast a considerable number of endemic species and infraspecific forms, consisting of 23 plants and 55 animals (Schembri, 1994).

Such species, apart from being unique, are biologically important because they show reproductive isolation and speciation at work. The lizard Podarcis filfolensis is perhaps the best known example of this, having evolved into different sub-species on most of the islands of the archipelago. It is the only endemic vertebrate in addition to the shrew Crocidura sicula calypso.

Terrestrial molluscs are a type of animal that evolves relatively quickly, in fact, 14% of the endemic animals are gastropods. Of these, the most interesting are the Hygromiidae and the Clausiliidae, which give clues as regards the isolation of the Maltese Archipelago from the surrounding land. The endemic snails Cernuella caruanae and Trochoidea spratti are relatively widespread, but the rarest gastropod is also an endemic – Lampedusa melitensis is a clausiliid whose population only consists of a few hundred individuals in a restricted ‘rdum’ area at Dingli. A sister species is Lampedusa imitatrix which is found further to the west along the southern coast of Malta. The last endemic clausiliid is Muticaria macrostoma, a taxon previously thought to consist of four different species, but these are anatomically indistinguishable (Giusti et al., 1995). The forms mamotica and scalaris are extremely restricted and therefore vulnerable. The forms macrostoma and oscitans, on the other hand, are frequent and one form prevails according to the geographical location. The southern coast of Malta (including Dingli) harbours the oscitans form.

81% of the endemic animal species are arthropods. These include the beautiful Maltese race of the butterfly Papilio machaon as well as the well-known freshwater crab Potamon fluviatile.
Endemic plants of the Maltese Islands are usually relicts from larger populations in a time when Malta was joined to Europe by a land bridge, for this reason they are called palaeoendemics. These are mostly restricted to rupestral habitats where they have competitively excluded other plants by tolerating harsh conditions such as high salinity. At Dingli, one can witness the species Darniella melitensis, Jasonia bocconei, and Palaeocyanus crassifolius, which is also Malta’s national plant. Cremnophyton lanfrancoi and Allium lojaconoi, a wild garlic that forms part of a cluster of similar species in central Mediterranean islands, are other palaeoendemics. Other endemic plants with more recent evolution are the orchid Anacamptis urvilleana and two species of Limonium, for this reason, they are referred to as neoendemics.


Fig. 4. Muticaria macrostoma form macrostoma, from Floriana, Malta

Fig. 5. Muticaria macrostoma form oscitans, from Siġġiewi, Malta
Giusti, F., Manganelli, G. & Schembri, P. J. (1995). The non-marine molluscs of the Maltese Islands. pp. 1-608, Torino.
Schembri, P. J. (1994). Natural heritage. In: Frendo, H. & Friggieri, O. (eds) MaltaCulture and Identity. pp. 105-124; Ministry of Youth and the Arts, Valletta, Malta

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