Added 31 May 2006.

A Brief Note on European Physical Geography and Climate

The following is a primer for readers, possibly from North America or Australia, who may not know about conditions in Europe and their effect on herpetological life in the area. It is not meant to be definitive but rather is a thumbnail sketch.

In terms of zoogeography, the entire continent forms part of the Palearctic area. This area also takes in much of North Asia and the edge of North Africa which has a Mediterranean climate rather than the drier African.

Size and boundaries

Europe is a small continent forming the western part of the Eurasian land mass. Its western boundaries (Spain, France, Britain and Ireland) are fairly well defined and accepted, but the eastern boundary less so: some take Europe to end at the borders of the former USSR and the western border of Turkey, while others include Russia to the west of the Urals and the Caucasus area, plus at least some parts of Turkey. We have followed the latter approach, but not consistently: therefore some reptiles and amphibians only found in Turkey or Western Russia may be omitted from these pages.


The climate of Europe varies, being generally harsher in the east (which is flatter and more exposed to winds from the Siberian plain) and milder in the west (particularly Britain and Ireland, which receive the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream). The Scandinavian landmass (Norway, Sweden and Finland) are located near or above the Arctic Circle, and thus receive short summers with very short nights and bitterly cold winters where darkness is nearly or totally complete. This notwithstanding, a few reptiles and amphibians have managed to survive in these conditions, although their seasonal activity is short and hibernation may last for nine months per year. Much of NW Europe, including the British Isles, Ireland, N France, the Low Countries and Germany and Denmark, have mild to moderately cold winters and moderately hot summers, although lately this climate pattern seems to be shifting towards warmer summers and wetter, milder winters, causing increased flooding in the process. Eastern and Central Europe tend to have more accentuated seasons, ie colder winters but hotter summers, although high-altitude areas such as the Alps and Carpathians may be cooler in summer and icebound in winter. The Mediterreanean, although nominally a sea is almost a lake, albeit on a large scale. The climate around its shores tends towards mild winters and hot summers, particularly in the west (Spain) and east (Turkey). The southern shores of the Mediterranean are formed by the North African countries and the Middle East, both of which areas have their own distinct geography, although the coastlines are probably not that different from Europe's. The mountainous Balkans (SE Europe) also has very hot summers and very cold winters, although the winters are not as long as those in Eastern Europe and particularly Russia. The climate around the Black Sea to the northeast of the Mediterranean is subtropical, depending on location (eg the Crimea), or montane (much of the Caucasus). Western Russia as far east as the Urals is similar to Eastern Europe, except that the winters are probably even colder, on a par with Canada or colder.

Physical Geography

Plate tectonics

The whole of Europe in its broadest sense sits on the Eurasian Plate. However, this plate forms a continental suture with the African plate along a line from roughly Gibraltar via the Atlas mountains of North Africa to Sicily, and further east (from W Greece through the Aegean as far as Cyprus) converges with it. The small Arabian plate is pushing northwards against the Eurasian but mainly against the Persian subplate. The western boundary of the Eurasian plate runs along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge but also right through the northern island of Iceland. As this boundary forms an axial rift with the neighbouring North American Plate, this contributes towards the well-known basaltic volcanoes of the island.

Ice Ages

The European continent has been largely influenced by the Ice Ages, during which the icesheets advanced and receded several times and left their mark on both land and fauna. Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe were once connected and wildlife (and presumably early humans) were able to walk across what is now the North Sea. Likewise some of northern Europe's valleys were formed by glaciers pushing their way southwards. The relative lack of reptiles in Britain and Ireland is attributable to these areas being cut off after this period, thus isolating them and preventing recolonisation by species on the continental mainland.


There are several mountain ranges in Europe, although none reach the massiveness or heights of the Himalayas or Andes. Much of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) is mountainous, including the Pyrenees which form a natural barrier between Spain and France, while western Scandinavia is also almost entirely mountain, its coastline studded with fjords caused by glacier action. By contrast, eastern Scandinavia is fairly flat, Finland being a land instead of many lakes. This may be partly because the country rests on the so-called Baltic shield, an area of exposed and very ancient rock. (The only other such area in Europe is the similarly flat Ukraine, resting on the Ukraine shield). Britain and Ireland are also fairly flat apart from the mountainous parts of Scotland, and the north European plain is likewise mainly devoid of high altitude areas, running essentially from the North Sea coast (Belgium and Holland) through north Germany, Denmark and Poland into Russia. (The Ardennes are not strictly mountains, although they are higher altitude than the rest of the Low Countries). Southern Europe is however a different story. Central Europe is dominated by the Alps, which cover all of Switzerland and also reach France, Austria, Germany and Italy, and which include large lakes in their heights. East of the Alps the Carpathians form a barrier between Eastern Europe and Russia, and to the southeast of the Alps lie the Balkans, an area of almost continuous mountain as far as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, broken only by the Hungarian plain. South of the Alps the Po River forms a floodplain but the Appenine mountains run the length of Italy from north to south, dividing the peninsula into two sides. In the transitional area between Europe and Asia, the Caucasus mountains include Europe's highest peak, Mt Erebus, while much of Turkey away from the coast is dominated by the Taurus mountains and the Anatolian highlands.

Collectively, all of the European mountain ranges, although often separated by a hundred or more miles, are all considered part of the Eurasian-Indonesian belt, with the exception of the mountains of Scotland and Scandinavia but including the Atlas mountains of North Africa. This belt stretches via the ranges of the Middle East and the Himalayas to the Indonesian archipelago.

Rivers, seas and waterways

Europe has several important rivers, seas and waterways. The Baltic Sea provides navigation for Scandinavia and Germany and Poland, emptying out into the North Sea. North of Scandinavia lies only the Arctic Ocean, which brings pack ice for much of the year, although again there are disturbing signs that the icecap is diminishing in size and vigour. The Mediterreanean has already been touched upon, but its islands are worth mentioning. In the west there are several large islands or island ranges. The Balearics are a group of 4-5 islands (Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza and others) in the NW Mediterranean between Spain and France. To the east of these, west of Italy, lay Corsica (French) and Sardinia (Italian). Off the "boot" of Italy is Sicily, a large, dry volcanic island, and further south, the smaller island of Malta. The eastern side of the Adriatic sea between Italy and the Balkans is studded with many small islands as well as the group known as the Ionian Islands, including Corfu and Zakynthos, the latter an important nesting site for marine turtles. The Aegean is also well endowed with islands, including the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. Although many of these islands are small, there are also larger ones, including Crete (once a great civilisation in its own right), Rhodes and Kos. Some of these Mediterranean islands were or are volcanos, or volcanic in origin: Santorini still boasts an impressive crater, while Mt Etna on Sicily is still active and the ancient Cretan civilisation is believed to have been wiped out by a tsunami caused by eruptions. At the eastern end of the Mediterranean is Cyprus, considered by some to be more Middle Eastern than European in its geography.

Taking the rivers, probably the most significant western river is the Rhine, which has its source in the Alps and flows northwards until it issues into the North Sea. The Danube is the great river of central Europe, emptying out into the Black Sea. The Po in Italy also flows from the Alps and forms its own flood plain before joining the Adriatic. Apart from the Oder in eastern Germany, the other great rivers of Europe are the Volga and the Dniepr, which both flow hundreds of miles in the north-south direction in Russia. There are many other rivers in all of Europe, but many flow down from the mountains and have not yet formed deep valleys and wide channels, unless one includes the Thames of England which does not really have a high-altitude source.

Natural Vegetation

The vast majority of European vegetation may be classified as midlatitude deciduous forest. This includes most of Western and Northern Europe including the British Isles and Ireland, Denmark, northern Spain, France, eastern Italy, most of Germany, much of the lower land of South-East Europe including the Black Sea, and the southern parts of Russia and Ukraine. This type of forestation is dominated by tall broadleaf trees that shed their leaves in winter. This type of vegetation is associated with moist continental climate and adequate precipitation and a strong annual temperature cycle with a cold winter and warm summer.

In ancient times and possibly up to the Middle Ages, two thirds of Europe was covered with forest. In the temperate parts of the continent, deforestation started almost simultaneously with human civilisation as people created settlements and needed fuel. In England, forest was partly preserved by the habit of kings of designating large areas as royal hunting ground, but the use of oak for England's navy after Reformation times decimated much British woodland. It is fairly true to say that on the whole, islands have suffered more from deforestation than continental areas. Although trees are now no longer used in this manner, and are instead planted in managed estates for wood products, the growth of human civilisation has had the unfortunate effect of reducing much primary forest or other uncultivated land.

Needless to say, much of the Scandinavian treeline is made of coniferous species, particularly on the mountainsides. Deciduous and mixed forest is more common in the temperate north of Europe. Scrub and brush predominate in parts of the Mediterranean, particularly in the arid areas, but even the hot countries of Spain and Portugal have substantial woodland area.

One area of Russia that is particularly noteworthy is the Pripet Marshes. This is (or was) an area the size of southeast England that was virtually all marshland. Apart from its ecological significance for wildlife, it also provided a handy wedge for Russia to split western invaders into two groups.

Human Geography

If Australia is a practically deserted continent, then Europe is quite a populated one. The estimates for population vary, but would probably be (all told) about 500 million, not including the 200million of the former USSR, of whom most Russians at least live in the cities of western Russia.

However, this population is not evenly distributed across the map. Great Britain, with 60 million people, is a fairly densely populated island, whereas Norway and Finland with their greater land size muster less than 10 million between them (partly no doubt because of their severe climate). Most of the temperate zone is taken up with either cultivated land or population centres, including some large conurbations such as the Ruhr in Germany. Southern Europe is less evenly populated: Spain and Italy, for example, both have large cities, but also areas of land which are quite low in population due to physical or climatic factors. The Balkan countries all have a fairly low population density, especially in the high mountains, as until recently (and certainly in ancient times) self-sustaining populations lived in uncertainly due to the poor agricultural conditions.

The impact of human civilisation on the reptile and amphibian life has been mixed. Some modern elements, such as chemical pollution of waterways or the dividing up of breeding areas into isolated pockets by building more and more roads, have certainly proved destructive, particularly in areas where land space is scarce (notably the UK). On the other hand, some species do become accustomed to man and his presence, and learn to tolerate or even take advantage of the situation. A prime example of this is the dry stone walls found in the Mediterranean islands (and the Canaries) which provide cover for many lizards and snakes. Other animals learn to take advantage of the cover afforded by vineyards, and indeed some snakes hang around human habitations because of the likely occurrence of rodents which have also learned to take advantage of mankind. Slowworms have often been found along railway embankments and cuttings, presumably because such areas are normally fenced off and therefore free from human interference.

Most European wildlife is protected by law, which often makes it an offence to disturb an animal. There are also strict laws on pollution, although continuing fines show that these are still inadvertently or deliberately broken. However, fragmentation of habitat and the dropping of the water table remain primary concerns. In the long run, global climate change will also have to be considered.


The main factor in European herpetology is the climate. There are few if any areas which enjoy the sort of all-year round subtropical or tropical climate that allows for the growth of large reptiles, and even the warmest areas usually have a winter period which makes brumation or complete hibernation necessary. This is obviously less of a factor with amphibians, but even here Europe lacks the diversity of frog life of the tropics. However, the continent is quite well blessed with newts and salamanders; here the cool climate must be seen as an advantage.

The action of the Ice Ages has also played a major role in zoogeography in this region. It is believed to be the main reason why there are no snakes in Ireland.

Finally, the impact of human civilisation has impacted to a large degree on European reptiles and amphibians, mainly since the Industrial Revolution with its attendant expanse in population, the large-scale cultivation of land for agriculture and until recently pollution from industry, particularly of water sources. However, not all human influence has been wholly negative. European herps are now protected under legislation and there is a greater awareness of their environmental needs.

Back to European Herps | Back to Amphibians | Back to Reptiles | Back to Herpetology | Back to Homepage