The Cretan fauna. Prehistoric animals

Inside the stone arch that separates the kitchen from the living room in our holiday villa you can see a very beautiful specimen of a large fossilized clam. And everywhere in the house's stone walls one finds fossil clams, snails and other remnants from the days when the rocks of Crete were part of the seabed.

Crete is part of a partially submerged mountain range (the Hellenic arc) and the island was once completely covered by water. At other times it has been joined to the surrounding continents and later separated as now. This has affected the prehistoric fauna. For example, several of the fossil animals that have been found, presumably arrived in Crete at a time when the island was connected to the mainland and later assumed dwarf forms to adapt to the limited food resources on an island, when Crete became a such.

Sirenia, Sea Cow (Metaxytherium medium)

Metaxytherium medium

Between 9 and 5 million years ago a kind of sea cow lived in the part of the Mediterranean, where Crete is now located. A sea cow or sirenia is a herbivorous mammal, of which there are four living species on the planet today. They live in swamps, rivers, estuaries, marine wetlands, and coastal waters.

The fossils, found in Crete all belong to the extinct species Metaxytherium medium. At the time when the sea cows lived the climate was warmer and around Crete, there were widespread areas of shallow water and large coral reefs that are ideal habitats for these animals.

Before the discovery of an entire skeleton and skull of the animal what was knows seemed humanlike at the upper part and like a fish at the lower part. Many therefore believed that it was a mermaid.

Cretan dwarf elephant (Elephas creticus)

Elephas creticus

The extinct Cretan dwarf elephants lived on Crete for between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago. Well before the first humans arrived in Crete. (For approx. 8,000 years ago). Because of their isolated habitat on an island the Cretan elephants developed dwarf form.

They weighed about 220 kg and was less than one tenth as large as the present-day elephants.

Fossils of dwarf elephants have been found on several islands in the Mediterranean, but they have evolved differently and assumed their own subspecies. They descended, however, probably all from the continental, straight-tusked elephant. Also an extinct species.

Cretan dwarf deer (Candiacervus)

Candiacervus sp. 2, Univ. of Athens

Candiacervus was a family of small deer that lived on Crete during the Pleistocene (ie between 11 and 2.5 million years ago). None of the species was higher than 70-80 cm above the shoulders. The smallest (Candiacervus ropalophorus) was only 40 cm.

This stands in contrast to many of the animals that lived at this time. They were characterized by being very large.

The animals had long, spatula-shaped antlers that were not branched, as evidenced by the picture. Despite its small size it was the relative of the giant Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus). Another extinct species of deer from this period that has been found in Eurasia.

Cretan Dwarf Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus creutzburgi)

Hippopotamus minor

The Dwarf Hippopotamus lived in Crete during the period known as Middle Pleistocene (for between 781.000 to 126.000 years ago). Fossils of two subspecies of Crete have been found. Both roughly the size of a pig.

Judging from their hooves these hippos probably moved on land to a greater extend than their relatives. One of the most famous finds are from the Katharo plateau in the Lassithi mountains at an altitude of 1.100 meters above sea level, which even then was far from the sea.

Hippos from this period have been found on more islands in the Mediterranean. They are known from Malta and on Cyprus fossils 'only' 10,000 years old have been found.

The photo depicts (in the absence of images of Cretan species), the similar but slightly smaller Hippopotamus minor, which lived in Cyprus.

Cretan otter (Lutrogale cretensis)

Lutrogale cretensis

The Cretan otter is the only prehistoric predator found in Crete. And it is only found in one place. In Liko cave near the village Likotinarea in the Apokoronas peninsula (West Crete) a nearly complete skeleton was found in strata from the Late Pleistocene (approx. 117.000 to 11.700 years ago).

It seems to have adapted to a life where it could move on land to a greater extend than the now living otter (Lutra lutra) do.

Cretan White-toothed Shrew (Crocidura zimmermanni)

Crocidura zimmermanni

There is one mammal that belongs to the quite different and otherwise extinct prehistoric fauna of Crete, but who still live on the island. It is the Cretan Shrew (Crocidura zimmermanni), found a few places in the mountains. You can read more about this animal in the section on endemic species here.

An article on Crete's prehistoric wildlife can be found here: van der Geer, Alexandra, Michael Dermitzakis, John de Vos: "Crete before the Cretans: The Reign of Dwarfs".