The term ‘species’ refers to a group of organisms that are genetically related and capable (or have the potential) of interbreeding under natural conditions to produce fertile offspring. Consequently, such groups of organisms have common distinctive features.
The Maltese Islands support a diverse array of indigenous terrestrial, freshwater and marine species. The rich species diversity of the Islands, also taking into account species abundance, is essential to maintain healthy ecosystems and an overall healthy environment.
What is an endemic species?
An endemic species is a native species that is only found in a given region or location and nowhere else in the world. Hence, a species found in Malta is referred to as a Maltese endemic species.
Vascular plants, also known as tracheophytes, are the most studied and most taxonomically diverse group in Malta. The indigenous flora amounts to some 1,200 species of flowering plants, which include various endemics. For example, the Maltese plant endemics Maltese rock-centuary (MT: widnet il-baħar; SN: Cheirolophus crassifolius), Maltese cliff-orache (MT: il-bjanka tal-irdum; SN: Atriplex lanfrancoi) and Maltese everlasting (MT: is-sempreviva ta’ Għawdex; SN: Helichrysum melitensis) are included in the IUCN publication, “The top 50 Mediterranean island plants – Wild plants at the brink of extinction, and what is needed to save them” since they are critically endangered. In fact, they are strictly protected by national and international legislation, and apart from being included as species of European Community Importance, Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) have also been designated to further safeguard these species and their habitat.
Worth mentioning are the orchids, known to most in Maltese as l-orkidi or l-orkidej (amongst other common names), which are amongst the most interesting and fascinating flowering species. Despite the Maltese Islands’ small size, over 40 orchid species are known to occur. A number of these are endemic species, such as the Maltese pyramidal orchid (MT: l-orkida piramidali ta’ Malta; SN: Anacamptis urvilleana) and Maltese spider orchid (MT: il-brimba sewda; SN: Ophrys melitensis), whilst a good number are confined to the Central Mediterranean Region. The latter includes Southern Italy, Sicily and its surrounding islands, and Tunisia and its surrounding islands.
In view of the local indigenous fauna, the Maltese Islands are rich with an immense diversity of insects (probably over 3,200), and new records are continually being discovered every year. With regard to vertebrates; whilst a significant number of birds (ca. 25 breeding; over 200 migrating) and marine bony fish (over 200) occur, the number of mammals is very limited – less than 30 species. The latter is mostly represented by bats and cetaceans, with large land mammals being entirely non-existent nowadays.
One of the reptilian species that has received most attention at a national level is the subendemic Maltese wall lizard (MT: il-gremxula ta’ Malta; SN: Podarcis filfolensis maltensis), found on the main islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino. Other endemic subspecies are confined to islets:
- One to Filfla (EN: Filfla wall lizard; MT: il-gremxula ta’ Filfla; SN: Podarcis filfolensis filfolensis);
- One to St. Paul’s Islands (EN: Selmunett wall lizard; MT: il-gremxula ta’ Selmunett; SN: Podarcis filfolensis kiselbachi – possibly extinct), and;
- One to Fungus Rock (EN: Fungus Rock wall Lizard; MT: il-gremxula tal-Ġebla tal-Ġeneral; SN: Podarcis filfolensis generalensis);
- It is also possible that a further subspecies is present on the islet of Cominotto.
In view of the fact that the Maltese Islands lack mountains and rivers, freshwater ecosystems are locally very scarce. Subsequently, freshwater organisms are too very limited in number, with the rarest being the Maltese freshwater crab (MT: il-qabru; SN: Potamon fluviatile lanfrancoi); as well as only one native amphibian, the painted frog (MT: iż-żrinġ; SN: Discoglossus pictus pictus) and one native fish, the Mediterranean killifish (MT: il-bużaqq; SN: Aphanius fasciatus). The latter is known from freshwater or brackish water habitats.
Marine fauna, in contrast, are particularly diverse, with a considerable variety of ringed worms (ca. 85 recorded; more occur) and molluscs (ca. 883 recorded; more occur). Of particular interest are the fauna of the open sea, which includes various cetaceans and marine turtles, and a variety of sharks and rays. Endemic marine organisms are also present, such as the Maltese top-shell (MT: il-gibbula ta’ Malta; SN: Steromphala nivosa) and the Maltese ray (MT: ir-raja ta’ Malta; SN: Leuciraja melitensis).
For further information, statistics and updates on Maltese flora and fauna, refer to the following State of the Environment Report chapters:
- SoER chapter 8 – Biodiversity (2018)
- SoER chapter 8 – Biodiversity (2008)
- SoER chapter 9 – Biodiversity (2005)
- SoER chapter 4 – Living resources, fisheries & agriculture (2002)
- SoER chapter 3 – Living resources, fisheries & agriculture (1998)
- Annual report – Current state of knowledge of the Maltese non-marine fauna (2003)
- Biodiversity conservation & utilisation in the Maltese Islands (1995)
- Important natural areas
- State of the Environment Reports
- State of the Environment Indicators
- United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity – Malta profile
- IUCN country focus – Malta