By Achilles Dimitropoulos
The Aegean space, and especially the Cyclades, has been a rich field of study for herpetologists, and Syros often hosted researchers interested in amphibians and reptiles. The geographical isolation of the islands, which led to the creation of characteristic subspecies, has attracted those scientists who were specialized in the study of problems in Systematics1. The Cycladic reptile fauna is rich and varied, including characteristic, unique subspecies, isolated on one or two islands, as well as two species unique in the world: Chalcides moseri and Elaphe rechingeri.
Asiatic species from Asia Minor arrived in the Cyclades in the past and today they meet in Mykonos and Delos (Agama stellio) or even in Milos (Vipera lebetina). On the contrary, species of the Balkan fauna while passed on an island, they were absent from its neighbors. Thus, Laftitis is a common snake in Mykonos, but has not been found in Syros.
Already classical and almost outdated, but always interesting, are the extensive publications by K. Buchholz, F. Werner and C. von Wettstein, who devoted much of their research work to the Cyclades; in these works there are repeated references to Syros. Among the modern researchers, R. Clark reports the presence of a spiked variety of common viper (Vipera ammodytes), which coexists in Syros with the common one that has the zigzag shape on the spine. This snake, which is relatively small, is very rare today and, as R. Clark himself told this author, it was caught very close to Ermoupolis.
The most systematic work on the reptiles and amphibians of Syros and the small uninhabited barren islands around it was made in 1980 by two distinguished researchers of the reptiles of Greece, Axel Beutler and Emil Frör and published in the Mitteilungen der Zoologischen Gesellschaft Braunau entitled “Die Amphibien und Reptilien der Nordkykladen”.
The scientists visited Syros on 3-4 / 10/1974 and 27 / 5-116 / 1977, and on these dates they made identifying visits to the barren islands of Didymus (Megalo Gaidouronisi), Mikro Gaidouronisi, Psathonisi, Schinonisi, Aspronisi and Stroggylo.
In Syros there is 1 species of amphibian and 11 species of reptiles: 1 turtle, 5 lizards and 5 snakes.
Near the inhabited areas, as well as in the few places where there are cisterns or springs, Prasinophrynos [Green toad]—which the people of Syros call, erroneously, a frog—is the only amphibian species on the island. We often see it after rain or as it stands watching for insects where light happens to fall in the summer nights. It breeds in cisterns and waterponds and often performs small, group movements to and from the areas where it is reproduced. During these journeys, many toads are killed in the streets by cars.
In the earlier literature, the common frog (Rana ridibunda) and the Mauremys caspica rivulata are also mentioned, species found in Andros, Tinos and Mykonos, but they seem to be extinct in Syros. Perhaps the drying of the swamps or other wetlands has contributed to their extinction.
In Syros, there are two species of slow worms, Cyrtodactylus kotschyi and Hemidactylus turcicus (Molyntiri), often found near at or in homes). Kridodaktylos is a very interesting species because it has a very large distribution in almost all Aegean islands , even in the small barren islands that are far from the shores. Its form varies from island to island, and so we have a large number of subspecies distributed in the Cyclades, Crete and the surrounding islands as well as the islands of the East Aegean.
Two species of diurnal lizards are found in Syros, the large Lacerta trilineata, known as the Colosauros and the much smaller Podarcis erhardii, which in the Cyclades is called Silivouti or Silivutaki and is found in large numbers near “hard walls” (old dry stone walls), old stone buildings, as well as curbs of country roads. Like Cytodactylus, it is also a diverse and very widespread species that counts many subspecies in the Cyclades. The males have dark patterns on a brown-green background, while the females are browner and streaky. The species in Syros and “Stapodia” (a barren island near Mykonos) belong to an intermediate species between the mykonensis subspecies and the naxensis subspecies. The Lacerta trilineata of Syros belongs to the same subspecies as the populations of Naxos, whereas Podarcis erhardii of Gyaros belongs to the same subspecies as the population of Mykonos; the species also exists in the small islands around Syros (Mikro and Megalo Gaidouronisi, Asprochori, Strongylo).
For the snakes of Syros and the surrounding islands there are old references, from Erhard to Wettstein, and nowadays R. Clark. In the literature, 5 species are mentioned, of which the most famous is the Elaphe situla (house snake), which in the old days people deliberately brought to their cellars to eat the mice. The house snake is, of course, the most beautiful and harmless snake in Europe. It has brownish red spots on the back, framed with black outline, while the body’s basic color can be whitish, yellow, creamy or grayish. It is often found in homes in the city and in the countryside, near stone walls, old stone buildings, and in fields.
The water snake, Natrix natrix, being adapted to the barren nature of Syros, is often far from water sources and feeds more on lizards and rodents than frogs and toads, which are its main food in wet areas. The species populations of Syros are an intermediate form between the black or spotted subspecies of Milos (N. schweizeri)—which extends its distribution to Sifnos, Paros, Antiparos, Despotiko and other islands of the Cyclades—and to the very widespread, striped subspecies of the Balkans and Turkey (N. n. persa).
In the very dry areas there is a strange snake that becomes active at dusk and in the night, the Telescopus fallax fallax (Aghiofido). This snake, which chases lizards and rodents like a cat, is grayish brown with dark brown or black spots on the back and an overwhelming sign, like a cross, on the nape. It is more common in the wilderness of Apano Meria. It has a mild poison, but its teeth are at the back of the mouth, and cannot be used when this snake bites a man. However, Aghiofido is usually very tame and almost never attempts to bite, even when we take it in our hands; that is why during a feast in Cephalonia, the faithful are able to catch and wrap in the arms and the shoulders such snakes.
The only dangerous snake on the island is the common Viper (Vipera ammodytes meridionalis), whose bite is painful but rarely fatal. Both the typical kind with the characteristic gray-black or brown zig-zag pattern on the back, and the rare dotted kind discovered by R. Clark coexist in the northern part of the island, in the Aetos area, and in Pagos, where this author witnessed a biting, as a result of which the patient needed to stay for several days in the hospital.
Viper snakes are found in rocky and bushy areas, but often visit places where there is water, both to drink and to hunt birds or rodents. They are not aggressive, and you have to almost step on them to bite. In the spring they are active during the day, and as they go through the summer, they acquire nocturnal habits.
The reptile fauna of Syros has many similarities to that of central Cyclades, while the one of Andros, Tinos and Mykonos is a separate unit with many common species. The differences in the reptile and amphibian faunae of the Northern Cyclades are small compared to those of the Western or Central Cyclades, but there is a wide variation among the species that are found in the Cyclades and those found in Evia and in the mainland. For most species, the stone walls (many of which are now abandoned) are a basic biotope, and there we find the largest numbers; there are fewer reptiles in the bushy areas and the cultivated fields, while only the Molyntiri lives in the cities. Toad, as well as species directly dependent on water such as Lacerta trilineata and the Nerofido, are at risk and probably some of their populations have already been lost when this article is published.
(1) Systematics: is the science that deals with the classification of different organisms. It is also known as Taxonomy.
source: Syros Letters Vol. 7, 1989
Translated by Constantine Hatziadoniu