Herpetofauna of Europe : malta (april-may 2007)
Herpetofauna of Europe European Amphibians & Reptiles

Herpetological trip to Malta
25th of April – 2nd of May 2007

All pictures but one (see below) (c) of Jeroen Speybroeck.

Though the herpetofaunal species richness of the Maltese isles is rather low, these islands are interesting because of the endemic Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis) and some ancient and recent introductions. Among those, especially Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus) catches attention, as Malta holds its only European population. Records of this snake are largely restricted to the urban surroundings of the Maltese capital Valletta and its harbour area. We managed to find a spot where we could observe three individuals, after very few hours of searching during our single visit to Valletta. Regarding all observed species, we found two species of amphibians, nine free-living reptile species, and a confiscated specimen of the single species (Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)) we could not find in the field. We also visited a recovery centre for Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta). We were five people: Jan, Peter, Anniek, Gijs, and myself.
Local naturalist Leonard Zammit accompanied us throughout our trip and was a great help in many ways. Also herpetologist Arnold Sciberras provided useful help and joined us on a one day trip to Comino. Charles Sammut was our kind guide at the turtle care centre. Patrick Schembri, Guido Bonett, Guido Kreiner and Lasse Bergendorf are thanked for some information prior to our trip.

overview of prospected sites

25th of April

We flew in in the late afternoon in overcast weather. At the airport, Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica) was our first observation. We were brought to our stay in a hotel at St. Paul’s Bay. Leonard dropped by to talk about Maltese wildlife and our plans for the next days.

26th of April – Salina and Chadwick Lakes

Nice sunny weather on this day. In the middle of the city, we found Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis) next to the local grocery store. Next, we drove to the salinas area east of St. Paul’s Bay. Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus), Common Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon), Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) and Western Whip Snake (Hierophis viridiflavus) were found here. On the way in the valley towards Chadwick Lakes, we stopped and found numerous invididuals and tadpoles of Painted Frog (Discoglossus pictus), besides Moorish Gecko, Ocellated Skink and a DOR Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla). At the lakes themselves, Painted Frog, Western Whip Snake, Ocellated Skink and a few Maltese Wall Lizards. A final stop on the way back, brought us the ubiquitous duo - Moorish Gecko and the extremely common Ocellated Skink.

first Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)

Common Chamaeleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon)

Common Chamaeleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon)

photographing chameleon - Jan, Gijs, Peter, Anniek and Leonard

Painted Frog (Discoglossus pictus)

frog habitat

tadpoles of Painted Frog (Discoglossus pictus)

Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus)

27th of April – Gozo

A very overcast day with a few mild showers. We took the boat to Gozo. At a pond in the southwest of the island, we found two fairly recent introductions - Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax bedriagae) and Red-eared Terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans). Also Ocellated Skink and Maltese Wall Lizard. On our way towards Fungus Rock, we stopped at a pond and found Turkish Gecko, Maltese Wall Lizard and Ocellated Skink. In front of Fungus Rock (home to the subspecies Podarcis filfolensis generalensis), we found the same three species and a skin of Western Whip Snake. Last stop on Gozo was at another pond closer to the ferry harbour. Here we found Maltese Wall Lizard, Turkish Gecko, a Western Whip skin and Painted Frog. After our return on the main island Malta, we searched on top of the Marfa Ridge in a chilly wind and found Turkish Gecko, Maltese Wall Lizard and Ocellated Skink. In the evening, we met with Arnold and talked about the Maltese herpetofauna.

Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax bedriagae)

Red-eared Terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans)

pond habitat

portrait of Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis) from Gozo

Fungus Rock with Peter, Gijs and Anniek in front

28th of April – Valletta and Qawra Point

This day again started off very overcast, with a few drops of rain. Because we decided the time had come to tackle the major challenge of the trip, we drove to Valletta. First, we explored a public garden hinted by Arnold. Peter followed his instinct and explored a more wild, park site, with a lot of rocks and shrubs. Anniek and I followed him. Ocellated Skink and Moorish Gecko were easily encountered, together with a few Maltese Wall Lizards. After a short while, while the temperature was starting to go up and the sun was just about to come out through the heavy clouds, Anniek and I heard Peter calling out. Much to our delighted surprise, he had already found an Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus). Holding the rear end of the animal, Anniek and I helped him to collect the big animal from its hiding place. This involved some nasty bites but we did not care very much. In the mean time, Gijs, Jan and Leonard had arrived at the same spot, and while everyone was taking pictures, Peter caught yet another snake. A third one was observed without catching. All three were large specimens, the first one being the largest (1m21 with a damaged tail, to our estimation missing at least 10cm). After this very fortunate event and a drink to celibrate it, we explored a place near the airport with a dead Western Whip Snake, Ocellated Skink and Moorish Gecko. Next, we followed a suggestion made by Arnold and visited a small island. This island was so close to the mainland that we could wade through the sea to reach it. On it were nicely coloured wall lizards. Finally, we did another search at the salinas area, where we found the same species as before, plus Maltese Wall Lizard and two Western Whips this time.

Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica)

Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus)

Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus)

typical dorsal pattern of Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus)

ventral pattern of Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus)

consequences of handling Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus)

in situ photography - Peter, Anniek, Gijs, Jan and Leonard

Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus) n°2

portrait of Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus) n°2

happy snake hunter

wading towards small islet - Gijs, Jan and Anniek

Sympetrum fonscolombii

Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)

Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)

Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)

habitat of Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)

29th of April – above Ghadira and Kalkara Ravine

On the slope in between the Ghadira Nature Reserve and the Red Tower, we searched and found a DOR Painted Frog, Ocellated Skink, Western Whip Snake and Common Chamaeleon. It was rather hot, so we fled into a valley near the Mistra Bay. A DOR chameleon, Ocellated Skink, Western Whip Snake, and a ditch full of Painted Frogs were found.

Western Whip Snake (Hierophis viridiflavus)

portrait of Western Whip Snake (Hierophis viridiflavus)

ditch full of frogs

30th of April – Chadwick take 2, Ghajn Rihana, Victoria Lines etc.

Leonard had to work in the morning, so we took care of ourselves for a change, and revisited the Chadwick valley, hoping for a living Leopard Snake this time. No luck, but again the same species as before and two adults and a juvenile of Western Whip Snake. We explored another nice valley, where we met with Leonard and found Western Whip Snake, Painted Frog, Moorish Gecko and Ocellated Skink. Near a football field in the city, we stopped during brief rain, and found Maltese Wall Lizard and Ocellated Skink. While a few drops were still falling, we did a short walk along the Victoria Lines. The rain stopped, a few sunbeams came through and Leonard caught the 1m long Leopard Snake that had come out to bask. After this nice encounter, we made a final stop at the western end of the Victoria Lines and -guess what- found Ocellated Skink and Moorish Gecko once more.

juvenile Western Whip Snake (Hierophis viridiflavus)

Victoria Lines

Leonard with Leopard (and Jan)

Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla)

Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla)

Peter’s defense against the many Maltese hunters

1st of May – Comino

Arnold had the day off, while Leonard had to work, so the former went with us to Comino on this warm day. Comino wall lizards were highly abundant and had white ventral surfaces. Of course, Ocellated Skink crossed our path, and Peter saw two Western Whip Snakes. When we got back on Malta, we visited the area near Fort Campbell. A lot of people were out for a picknick. We found a DOR chameleon, Ocellated Skink, and both gecko species.

Peter and Arnold chatting on the way to Comino

Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)

Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis)

what’s for dinner?


landscape at Comino with Gozo in the back

2nd of May – Ghadira, Buskett and sea turtles

Arnold arranged for us to visit the Ghadira Nature Reserve. Six chameleons and Ocellated Skink were seen, besides some nice birds. After that, we drove all across the island to a place where some Loggerhead Turtles (Caretta caretta) are kept in captivity to recover after close encounter with some nasty fishermen. The center held some other marine animals too. Outside the place, we found Moorish Gecko. Because it was really warm, we decided to go for the shade of Buskett Gardens as our final stop. Although littered quite heavily, this was a nice place and we found Moorish Gecko, Ocellated Skink, a juvenile Western Whip Snake and several Painted Frogs. In the evening, we met with Leonard for a delicious final meal. Before that, however, he popped up the single Maltese herp species we did not encounter in the field; Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax). The animal was rescued from a panicked local housewife but of unsure original habitat and released in a suitable area. In the middle of the night, we flew back to Belgium.

Common Chamaeleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon)

Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) - not shot yet …

Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta)

me and 3 year old Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta) that had to receive some medicine - pic by Peter

large hermit crab (Dardanus callidus)

scorpion fish (Scorpaena sp.)

Buskett Gardens

Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)

Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax)

A note on the toxicity of the saliva of Hemorrhois algirus

After being bitten in the right hand, three of us (Jan, Anniek and myself) developed swelling of lymphoid glands in our right armpit. This is most likely associated with Duvernoy's gland secretion. The largest Algerian Whip Snake had the opportunity to administer a long, chewing bite to all three of us. So far, we are all still as OK as before, so no severe consequences were associated with the bite.

List of the observed species

1. Painted Frog (Discoglossus pictus) - found on Malta in most encountered freshwater points, most of them of ephemeral nature
2. Levant Water Frog (Pelophylax bedriagae) - though also introduced to Malta, we only went to look for it at a single spot on Gozo
3. Red-eared Terrapin (Trachemys scripta elegans) - same remark as with 2.
4. Common Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon) - encountered at several places
5. Moorish Gecko (Tarentola mauritanica) - very widespread and common on Malta, not observed on Gozo and smaller islets
6. Turkish Gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) - not extremely rare; also found on Gozo but not on Comino
7. Ocellated Skink (Chalcides ocellatus) - extremely common; found nearly everywhere and mostly in large numbers
8. Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis) - much more common on Gozo and Comino than on Malta
9. Western Whip Snake (Hierophis viridiflavus) - fairly common but less abundant than e.g. related species in the Balkans
10. Algerian Whip Snake (Hemorrhois algirus) - observed at a single, urban site, where it is most likely rather abundant
11. Leopard Snake (Zamenis situla) - many long searches with a nice adult as a result

What we missed …

We were unable to find the always secretive Cat Snake (Telescopus fallax) in the field. The same, of course, goes for Loggerhead Turtle (Caretta caretta), which often passes through offshore Maltese waters. Many further introductions of other species have been made to Malta in the past, but none of them is known to persist until today.

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