Added 11 February 2010.
Reptiles and Amphibians in Europe
For the ordinary person, the mention of "amphibians" or, worse, "reptiles" in Europe can sound strange or even somewhat alarming, especially if you're used to watching lurid wildlife documentaries set in tropical climes with poison frogs, giant salamanders, man-eating crocs, so-called "dragons", venomous snakes and enormous pythons. Aren't these animals a bit dangerous?
If you're at all worried, be assured. In Europe there are no poison frogs, no giant reptiles or amphibians and very few venomous snakes. The vast majority of reptiles and amphibians on this continent are small (about 12"/30cm or less, even counting any tail) and are quiet, retiring creatures. They feed not on livestock or people but mostly on insects, the larger or more voracious species taking rodents or one another. The tortoises are mostly herbivorous.
Reptiles and amphibians are both "cold-blooded" groups, meaning that they get most of their energy from the warmth around them rather than from their food (the "warm-blooded" method of birds and mammals). This is the main reason that reptiles (particularly lizards) and amphibians often appear to be basking in the sun (most really are, soaking up the warmth to get going). Other than that, though, there are important differences between the two:
In Europe, both groups of animals tend to hibernate in winter, except in the few parts that are hot all year round such as extreme southern Spain. Apart from protecting them from freezing, hibernation also usually serves as a sort of seasonal clock, and most species mate soon after coming out of hibernation.
- Amphibians (which in Europe means frogs, toads, newts and salamanders) are somewhat simpler creatures in some ways. They tend to be more tied to water, where many of them lay their eggs and in which the young often spend the first, early part of their lives. Their skin is porous, to allow them to breathe through it, which is one reason it often feels moist or slimy - a dry amphibian skin cannot normally allow a gaseous exchange with the atmosphere. Like fish, amphibians have a heart divided into two chambers (as opposed to three for most reptiles, and four for birds and mammals). Generally they prefer cooler temperatures - even when living in dry, hot or arid places, their actual dwelling place will often be a damp, cool or dark spot. Many prefer to come out at night, particularly in hot weather.
- Reptiles (which in Europe includes lizards, snakes, tortoises, turtles and amphisbaenians) by contrast have a skin that is usually watertight and often very scaly. They are not tied to water and the vast majority give birth by laying watertight (but not airtight) eggs on land. Their heart is usually three-chambered. Generally reptiles prefer higher temperatures than amphibians and many need direct sunlight to create certain vitamins, although all species have a maximum temperature beyond which they must seek to cool down or risk death. This is why in zoos the reptile cages have a light or other heat source at one end, since this allows the reptile(s) to move towards or away from the heat as necessary.
Having said that the vast majority of reptiles and amphibians are perfectly harmless, I should add a note of caution. All animals can be dangerous or at least injurious in some way (think about getting scratched by a cat, bitten by a dog or kicked by a horse, to put it into perspective). Reptiles and amphibians are no exception, but rarely cause problems in Europe (a big plus being that they are incapable of carrying rabies). Please note the following, especially if you have children or pets with you:
- The skin of many amphibians contains toxins to help them breathe. These are harmless to the animal but may deter predators if the toxins enter the predator's mouth. For this reason if you must handle an amphibian - and they are best not handled, for their sake as well as yours, since our skin is equally irritating to them - make sure you wash your hands afterwards, and avoid rubbing your eyes or contact with broken skin, etc. Obviously children need particular attention in this regard.
- Similarly, reptiles have been known to carry salmonella, at least in their faeces. If you pick up a reptile, again make sure to wash your hands afterwards. Some guidelines suggest that under-fives and people whose immune system may be compromised (eg sick or elderly) should not handle reptiles. Again, to keep things in perspective, think how you would act if handling a cat's litter tray or clearing up after a rabbit or dog.
- Snakes inspire fear in people, but most are harmless. However, if you see one and are not sure whether it is venomous, caution is obviously advisable. Even most vipers in Europe are not life-threateningly venomous, but a bad combination of circumstances can make for a stay in hospital or worse. Elsewhere we have put up some guidelines on venomous snakes.
- It's worth remembering, finally, that reptiles and amphibians are mostly protected throughout Europe, and some are now quite rare. They are fascinating animals to observe, but those in the wild should normally be left in the wild. If you find them interesting and wish to keep them, the best thing to do is to read up about them and then buy one from the local pet shop at home, preferably one bred in captivity. Taking one on impulse from the wild while on holiday risks compromising the creature's health (do you know how to feed it, or how to keep it?) and you getting a fine, either on holiday or coming back home, or (and this is no joke) even imprisonment. If you like the look of the species you saw, there is a chance that a breeder back in the UK or your own country will be able to provide you with a captive-bred example, which will normally be healthier anyway.
Photographing reptiles and amphibians
This is the best way to preserve memories of the different animals you see, but can be frustrating as well as rewarding! I have put some notes on photography in the conservation section elsewhere, but it's probably true to say that as with all photographic subjects, whole books could be written (and have been) on the subject of photographing reptiles and amphibians. The main challenge is that (a) they're small and (b) they're fast, often off like a shot as you lumber up to them with a camera. For this reason, realistically speaking, you'll probably find it hard to photograph them with an instamatic or ordinary digital camera unless you're fortunate in getting the right moment or right species. A zoom lens and/or macro will enormously improve your chances. Early morning is usually the best time to go looking for subjects to take pictures of. Dry stone walls are often good places to photograph lizards and snakes, while undisturbed ponds will often house amphibians and turtles. Patience is definitely a virtue here: sitting quietly for a while often brings rewards.
A brief look at the animals
This section just gives an overview of the different groups of reptiles and amphibians. There is more detailed information on the separate pages.
- Frogs and toads are collectively known, scientifically, as anurans or tailless amphibians. It is hard to mistake them for anything else. In scientific terms there is actually very little difference between them, other than the fact that in Europe, toads tend to have a wartier and rougher skin and be less closely tied to water than frogs. Some are quite small, some climb plants and trees and a couple spend a lot of time buried in the soil. They can be quite vocal in the mating season.
- Newts and salamanders are collectively known, scientifically, as caudata, caudates or urodeles, or more easily as tailed amphibians. They somewhat resemble lizards, but a closer look will show the lack of a scaly skin and sometimes bright colours or a crest along the back. Newts tend to be smaller than salamanders and more tied to the water, but in practice both newts and salamanders are less tied to the water outside of the mating season. They are normally more reclusive and secretive than frogs and toads.
- Tortoises and turtles are collectively known as chelonia, chelonians or simply shelled reptiles. They are not widely represented in Europe compared with elsewhere, but most countries south of the Baltic have at least one species. Tortoises are land-dwelling reptiles that are mainly herbivorous, and whose shell tends to be quite domed. Turtles (including terrapins) have flatter shells and are at least semi- if not totally aquatic, living off a variety of organisms living in ponds, rivers or the sea.
- Lizards are a very diverse group of creatures, even in Europe. However most can be recognised by their four legs, tail and dry scaly skin. Not all have the legs, however: two species, including the slow-worm which also lives in the UK, have no legs and appear snake-like at first. A closer look will however show that a legless lizard has an eyelid and a notch behind the eye (its ear). Many European lizards are an impressive shade of green, often with some sort of pattern, but some are a plain brown and a few even blackish. Geckos tend to hole up during the day but are active by night, when they are often found on the walls or ceilings of buildings, especially near lights if insects are around. Chameleons, those slow-moving, strange swivel-eyed creatures, may occasionally be encountered in the Mediterranean area, although they are now quite endangered. Many European lizards, particularly in the south, have made their homes on city walls or among ruins and can be seen sunning themselves during the early daytime.
- Snakes need no introduction, but the difference between snakes and legless lizards should be noted. Basically snakes have no eyelids and no external ear opening. In addition a snake will move much more swiftly than a legless lizard. The majority of European snakes are harmless and in fact beneficial, since they prey on rodents which would otherwise assume nuisance proportions. Snakes also like to bask, but tend to be more secretive than lizards. Some species are also more closely associated with fresh water, since their prey includes frogs, fish or other species associated with ponds, etc. A couple of species are mildly venomous, but all vipers (recognisable by their wider heads and apparent "scowling" appearance) should be treated with caution - however, the casual visitor is unlikely to encounter one.
- Finally, the amphisbaenian or "worm-lizard" is sometimes encountered. Amphisbaenians are a group of legless reptiles related to lizards and snakes that resemble giant earthworms, except that they possess a skeleton, mouth and sometimes eyes, and their skin feels nothing like that of an earthworm. Like earthworms they do live in the soil, living rather like moles as they tunnel in the darkness looking for insects and similar small organisms to eat. Most people will never encounter one, because of their rarity and way of life.
All European countries with the exception of Iceland have at least some reptiles and amphibians, but it is true that the further south you go, the more apparent they become and the more species there are. Generally the Mediterranean area is a good place to see them, particularly Spain, Portugal, Greece and the Greek islands, and Turkey, not least because the good weather means some will normally be out and about.
If you want more detailed information on the reptiles and amphibians of Europe, there are pages on this site dealing with each group, including details of their appearance, habitat and so on. If you are going to Europe and would like to be able to identify what you're looking at, a small and inexpensive field guide is the best option. Two I would recommend are E N Arnold's Reptiles and Amphibians of Britain and Europe (a Collins Field Guide) and the New Holland European Reptile and Amphibian Guide by Axel Kwet. The first of these is more detailed but a bit bigger, the second has photos rather than drawings and slips into the pocket.
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