Added 11 February 2010.

Reptiles and Amphibians in Europe

An Introduction

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.


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:

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.

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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