Table 3 – Number of Endemic and Sub-endemic Species
When considering fauna indigenous to the Maltese Islands, one can mention the immense diversity of insects, this being the most taxonomically represented group, with Coleoptera and Lepidoptera recorded being in the region of 600 for each group. New records are continually being discovered. Considering vertebrates, while a significant number of birds and marine bony fish occur (over 200 for each group), the number of mammals is very limited – less than 30 species, and mostly represented by bats and cetaceans, with large land mammals being practically inexistent nowadays. One of the reptilian species that has received most attention nationally is the sub-endemic Maltese Wall Lizard (Podarcis filfolensis), with one endemic subspecies found on the main islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino, while other endemic subspecies are confined to islets: one to Filfla, one to Selmunett and one to Fungus Rock; it is also possible that a further subspecies is present on the islet of Cominotto. In view of the scarcity of freshwater ecosystems in Maltese (rivers being entirely absent), freshwater organisms are very limited in number, with for instance only one amphibian and one fish being known from freshwaters. Marine fauna are then particularly diverse, with a considerable variety of annelids and molluscs. Amongst the marine fauna of the open sea, of particularly interest are various cetaceans and marine turtles, together with a variety of sharks and rays. Endemic marine organisms are also present, such as Maltese Topshell (Gibbula nivosa).
One can also appreciate the importance of soil biodiversity. Indeed, a myriad of highly diverse species live in Maltese soils. Malta’s soil information system (MALSIS) was a project funded under the LIFE, Third countries. The two-year project was completed in February 2004 and was implemented by the National Soil Unit within the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs (MRRA). Prior to the MALSIS project, the only soil survey information available for the Maltese Islands was the 1:31,680 scale map and accompanying report produced by Lang (1960) for the then Colonial Office. In MALSIS, a precise grid survey at 1km x 1km interval was conducted on Malta, Gozo and Comino and data was recorded manually on field recording forms from 272 sampled sites. The information recorded on the field survey form enabled the soil to be classified according to the World Reference Base for Soil Resources (WRB). The MALSIS grid survey has identified 19 soil units, from 7 soil reference groups (Leptosols, Arenosols, Vertisols, Calcisols, Luvisols, Regosols and Cambisols) according to the WRB soil classification system (Figure 2). (For more information refer to Sammut 2005).
Figure 2 - Soil types in Malta
(A higher resolution map is available here)
Such soil types act as a habitat and food source for soil microorganisms, microfauna, macrofauna, megafauna, microflora and macroflora. Important habitat types in terms of soil biodiversity include woodlands of various types. A number of soil-inhabiting species have been found in soil at 10-30cm depth, often under trees, many of which have been recently described as new species to science, and endemic to the Maltese Islands. Argillaceous soils (clay slopes) and karst soil pockets in garigue, rocky steppes and rdum are also important for a wide array of fauna, including threatened and endemic species such as the very rare Filfla door-snail, (Lampedusa imitatrix), the Maltese door-snail (Lampedusa melitensis) - a critically endangered endemic species, and, the Għar Lapsi top snail (Trochoidea gharlapsi) - a vulnerable endemic snail. Wooded areas and garigue are also important for various fungi. Many fungi live in soil and are mostly inconspicuous to the naked eye. An exception is provided during the fruiting period of the so-called macrofungi, which produce various fruiting bodies, of different forms and shapes. The soil of kamenitzae, a specialised habitat type, is also important for its biodiversity. Kamenitzae are essentially karstic structures in Coralline Limestone that fill with freshwater during the wet season forming temporary rock pools. Since this habitat is of an ephemeral nature, because of the percolating nature of coralline limestone, these pools house a transient flora and fauna which grows rapidly and is capable of reproducing in the limited time available. Such flora and fauna persist from one cycle to another as seeds, eggs or cysts found in the shallow soil layer in the karstic structure that eventually fills with water. Important species thriving in such resting stages in the soil include: the rare Maltese horned pondweed (Zannichellia melitensis) endemic to the Maltese Islands, the rare Maltese Waterwort (Elatine gussonei), the very rare Mediterranean Star-fruit (Damasonium bourgaei), and the very rare Tadpole Shrimp (Triops cancriformis), one of the oldest species inhabiting this planet. Specialised habitats, including saline marshlands, freshwater wetlands and other humid areas, as well as sand dunes, also house important species, including many rare and endangered beetles, which depend on the soil /sand. (For more information refer to Stevens 2005).
1.1.3 Genetic Diversity
Information on genetic diversity is available when considering certain habitat types. Considering woodlands, native tree stands are important since they are the last remaining native genetic stocks, with certain trees being very old and hence listed as “trees of antiquarian importance” by Government Notice 269 of 1933 published under the provisions of the Antiquities (Preservation) Act (Act XI of 1925 as amended), which protects all trees older than 200 years. These include Holm Oaks estimated to be between 500 – 900 years old. The work of Borg (1922) provides an extensive account of plant varieties in Malta, particularly with respect to trees.
As indicated earlier, freshwater habitats are very restricted in Malta. Hence, most of the native species reliant on water during some part of their life cycle are found in valley watercourses, implying the importance of these habitats in terms of both species and genetic diversity. Added to this is the significance of rock pools when noting the distinctive flora and highly specialised fauna that they support. The genetic diversity of saline marshlands is noteworthy since each such marshland is typified by its own characteristic habitat features and species assemblages, with a number of invertebrates known only from this habitat type.
When considering plant and animal genetic resources for food and agriculture, modern varieties of both plants and livestock have been imported throughout the years to Malta in favour of local varieties. This resulted in Maltese genotypes being eroded or entirely lost. Nevertheless, certain varieties of cultivated crops remain that are considered to be authochtonous. For this reason, characterisation trails have recently been launched for selected varieties. Trees on farms believed of local origin include possibly more than one variety of peach, possibly more than one variety of citrus (such as the Maltese blood orange), the local cultivar “Bambinella” (Small Malta June Pear), olive, and vines (two indigenous varieties: Ġellewża [red] and Girgentina [white]).
Project Primo aims at propagating the indigenous olive variety called Tal-Bidni, planting of Tal-Bidni olive orchards, and establishing an olive oil production industry. The Annual Report for 2008 issued by the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs (MRRA) reports production of around 1,000 Tal-Bidni olive trees during the year. Tal-Bidni olives were harvested from olive trees growing on farm grounds for the first time and an oil sample was obtained.
The Viticulture and Oenology Unit within the Department of Agriculture was granted a research programme under FP7 by the Malta Council for Science and Technology. The project, which deals with the identification of local vine varieties, will be carried out in conjunction with the University of Malta. It will mainly focus on the Maltese indigenous varieties of vines – Girgentina and Ġellewża.
There has been a growing interest in the reintroduction and preservation of authochtonous livestock breeds. Amongst these one can mention the Maltese Ox (‘Il-Baqra Maltija’ - critically endangered indigenous breed listed in the FAO’s World Watch list for Domestic Animal Diversity for the year 2000), the Maltese goat, the Maltese sheep (a small population still exists in parts of the country), the Maltese ‘black’ chicken (renowned for its prolific production of large white eggs and its reluctance to brood) and the Maltese turkey (well adapted to backyard production systems). Of interest is also an endemic subspecies of honey-producing bees (Apis mellifera rutneri) which is phenotypically different from other Mediterranean bees. The Apiculture Unit (AU) within the Department of Agriculture assists all registered beekeepers in Malta and Gozo in all aspects of beekeeping, including any bee disease problems that might occur. A new mating station has also been set up. The main work at the mating station at Romeo Romano Gardens involves the breeding of selected drones of the Maltese taxon in order to congest the surrounding congregation area and hence guarantee as much as possible the controlled mating of selected Maltese queen bees with these drones. This work aims to conserve the local honey bee subspecies. The AU is also collecting samples of Maltese bees from different apiaries for further analysis to determine the level of hybridisation of A. m. ruttneri with imported Apis mellifera in the Maltese Islands (Source: MRRA Annual Report 2008).
There are various wild relatives of cultivated species known in the Maltese Islands. These include for instance, the wild Sulla (Hedysarum coronarium) known in Maltese as “Tan-nebbieta” found mainly on clay slopes in the north and northwest of Malta. One can also mention Wild Leek (Allium commutatum) and Maltese Leek (Allium melitense) which grow in rocky steppe, Wild Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus), Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).
The Crop Husbandry Unit within the Department of Agriculture is responsible for the setting up and execution of trials and experiments performed both in the open field and also under protected cultivation. These trials consist in the growing and demonstration of vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruit trees and forage crops. In 2008, various crops were grown besides the maintaining of fields and surroundings.
When considering wild relatives of domesticated species, the Maltese race of the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus6) is noteworthy for its distinct red colour. Although found in the wild in small numbers on the larger islands, the rabbit is found in considerable numbers on the smaller island of Comino.
1.1.4 The Importance of Malta’s Biodiversity
The importance of Maltese biodiversity has been echoed in various works, with authors expressing the necessity to safeguard our natural heritage. This is crucial noting that biodiversity is a vital resource. Benefits derived from ecosystem services, such as provision of food and raw materials, freshwater and clean air, are indeed considered to be indispensable life-support services. These greatly contribute to the human well-being and quality of life of the Maltese population.
The importance of Maltese biodiversity also extends far beyond our national boundaries. For instance, certain native species are regionally and internationally important because they may be endangered on a European scale or have a restricted Mediterranean distribution (even though some are locally relatively common). For instance, Filfla supports one of the largest breeding colonies of the European storm-petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus) in the Mediterranean. Some taxa with a restricted distribution were also first described from Maltese material, and for these the Maltese Islands are the type locality.
Apart from the intrinsic value of biodiversity in the Maltese Islands, other values are considered imperative: social, aesthetic (e.g. observing wildlife and bird watching), recreational (e.g. natural areas are sought by families during weekends following a hectic week), educational, scientific (e.g. noting that various species are of particular evolutionary and biogeographical interest in a small island State), ecological (e.g. biodiversity plays a vital ecological role that is translated in various ecosystem services that are important to the Maltese, such as the maintenance of soil fertility and insect pollination), cultural (e.g. endemic species contribute a degree of uniqueness to the Maltese natural environment and its identity), commercial and economic (sectors like agriculture, fisheries and tourism, are ultimately dependent on biodiversity).
For instance the following communities are associated with particular services:
Steppic grasses are important for grazing although this is not that much practised anymore in Malta.
Garigue is an important habitat for aromatic shrubs that are used as herbs, such as Rosemary (Rosmarinus offinalis); other species have been also associated with medicinal properties such as Maltese Savory (Satureja microphylla), which is documented as a diuretic (e.g. by Lanfranco, 1993); the thyme component (Thymus capitatus) is important in honey production as it is a foraging species for the honey bee; Thymus capitatus is also documented in literature for its medicinal properties by Lanfranco (1993), such as used for sore throat, cough, bronchitis, asthma, arthritis, amongst others.
Maquis includes trees which were introduced in antiquity in view of their usefulness e.g. pomegranate and almond trees; carob and olive trees are still exploited for the making of carob julep/syrup and olive oil;
Woodland remnants are important for air quality in terms of carbon sequestration and oxygen production; soil stabilisation; in the water cycle (evapotranspiration); shelter provided by the canopy; amenity and recreational value;
Valley watercourses are a very important ecosystem in view of the availability of water; important also for drying higher ground during the rainy season and thence in preventing floods;
Saline marshlands act as a water catchment area and are important for coastal protection. Reed beds that colonise this habitat are also important in filtering pollutants apart from creating a refuge for certain rare species such as the freshwater crab (Potamon fluviatile lanfrancoi);
Sand dunes are important in the prevention of beach erosion;
Soil biota are essential in nutrient cycling (by decomposers) and in the maintenance of soil fertility, which in itself is important for agriculture productivity;
Certain species are also particularly important (and hence are termed “keystone species”) such as insect pollinators of plants including crops and hence play a crucial role in food security,
The use of local biological resources brings various benefits to the Maltese community and also the local economy (recreation and tourism). Use of local biological resources (as food, medicinal products) provides the country with a degree of self sufficiency and minimises the reliance on the importation of foreign produce and resources thereby minimising the risk of introduction of alien species and potential plant pests which can devastate Maltese agriculture and horticulture, not to mention ecosystems. Local produce can also have an important place in niche markets.
As a natural resource, soil provides a number of important functions in the context of ecosystem processes, such as providing a growth and support medium for plants; storing carbon and water; buffering of ions; water purification, as well as the breakdown and cycling of organic matter and the nutrient supply to soil biota. Such functions contribute to soil quality and the health of ecosystems and form a basis for land and agricultural productivity and viability. The legal mandate for soil protection in Malta stems from the Fertile Soil (Preservation) Act (CAP 236, as amended). National policies and measures, including agri-environmental measures under the Malta’s Rural Development Plans (for the past programming period 2004-2006, and the current one covering the programming period 2007-2013) have also been directed to mitigating processes that induce soil erosion. Some standards for good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) also relate specifically to the protection of rubble (stone) walls, which are traditional soil retaining structures. The ‘Rubble Walls and Rural Structures (Conservation and Maintenance) Regulations, 1997’ (LN 160 of 1997, as amended by LN 169 of 2004) also play a role in soil protection.
Bearing in mind the afore-mentioned, it is appreciated that the maintenance of biodiversity is of utmost importance, and that hence it is the responsibility of the Maltese community to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of components of biodiversity. It is deemed imperative to ensure this for both present and future generations.
Assessment of Conservation Status
Although the state of knowledge of species present in Malta has been rather stable over the last decades, a number of new records have indeed been published, while others await publication. Research has thus far concentrated on the more popular groups (birds, plants, insects and fish). Although some less popular groups did receive attention, (e.g. slime moulds and branchiopods), knowledge on certain taxonomic groups (mostly marine) still remains poor. Appraisals of the conservation status of species of the Maltese Islands have been carried out intermittently since the 1970s, but the first official detailed assessment was made in 1989 with the publication of the ‘Red Data Book for the Maltese Islands'. Over the past few years, work has been initiated on updating the RDB, which has involved the commissioning of several studies. A general review of the status and trends of selected groups of species was considered in various State of the Environment Reports (SOERs) and State of the Environment Indicators (SOEIs).
The status of breeding birds has also been reviewed by the SOEI 2007 – Indicator on the Status of breeding Birds. Examples of threatened breeding bird species include the following European Species of Conservation Concern; Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur), Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix) and Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla). Malta also holds over 10% of the world population of the globally near threatened Yelkouan Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan), over half of the Mediterranean sub-species of the European Storm-petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus melitensis) and an estimated 4,500 pairs of Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea). The latest account of 34 species of breeding birds (as well as a further 3 introduced species) is available on Malta’s Breeding Bird Atlas 2008.
Though all Maltese endemic species that merited protection were afforded legal protection by 2003 (some species were protected way before 2003), many species remain threatened. The high population density coupled with conflicting land and sea use practices has inevitably affected the conservation status of a number of species, with resilient species adapting better to such changes. Species that are particularly threatened are taxa with extremely restricted distribution and high habitat specificity, including species characterised by small fragmented populations and/or inhabiting habitat that are restricted in distribution.
Further evaluation has been carried out for those species of European Community interest as part of reporting obligations under Article 17 of the EC Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC). Malta’s Report was submitted to the European Commission in 2008 and a national summary has also been published. Figure 3 shows the conservation status of species of European Community interest that are found in the Maltese Islands, following an assessment carried out in 2007, which took into consideration 55 species. Figure 4 shows the overall assessment of conservation status by species category. The status of 37 percent of species listed in the Habitats Directive is still unknown. Furthermore, 44 percent of species have a bad or inadequate conservation status.
Figure 3 – Conservation status of species of European Community interest that are found in the Maltese Islands (2008)
(MED – Mediterranean Region; MMED – Mediterranean Marine Region)
Figure 4 – Overall assessment of conservation status by species category (2008)
(The number in brackets indicates the number of occurrences)
Figure 5 – Distribution endemic and sub-endemic plant species of European community interest (2008)
he conservation status of endemic and sub-endemic plant species that are of community interest was also assessed through the Article 17 Report submitted as per requirements of the EC Habitats Directive. Ten such species are listed in the Annexes of the Directive. The categories which could be assigned to a species were: Favourable (0% of species), Unfavourable – Inadequate (80% of species), Unfavourable – Bad (20% of species), Unknown (0% of species). Figure 5 shows the distribution of these species when considered altogether, using 1x1km grids. It can be clearly noted that the distribution of these species is mostly along the coastal cliffs, since certain species are confined to such a specialised habitat. The distribution map also covers areas where the habitat type consists of garigue/phrygana, which supports orchid species. On the other hand, the distribution map does not cover the central and southern areas of mainland Malta – this is clearly in view of the extent of urbanisation in these parts.
Figure 6 - Status of Native Trees (MEPA 2008)
ative trees in the Maltese Islands form the following communities: Mediterranean sclerophyllous woodlands and maquis; dry valley-bed woodlands; riparian woodlands; coastal maritime woodlands; and semi-natural woodlands. Despite the small size of the islands, the variety and diversity of Maltese trees is impressive, amounting to about 60 species. Nonetheless, 77% of these are rare, threatened, or are not found anymore (Figure 6). Noting that 11% of Maltese trees are already extinct from the wild, and that two-thirds (66%) of Maltese trees are rare and/or threatened, an increased effort is required to reduce this trend, noting that a good number of Maltese trees are on the verge of extinction. Means to effectively enforce current regulations and to further promote the use of Maltese trees in afforestation, reforestation and ecological restoration projects needs to be sought.