The amphibians and reptiles on Milos island
by Mario Schweiger
According to present knowledge, we have identified one amphibian and ten reptiles on the island of Milos.
Marsh frog, Pelophylax "ridibundus"
Once widely distributed, today there only a few known “refuges” left. One of these is situated at the very back (freshwater area) of the lagoon by Chivadolimni.
Balkan terrapin, Mauremys rivulata
Like the marsh frog, the Balkan terrapin is now only found in a few locations on the island. In the 70’s, it was very frequently seen in the calm lake by Provatas. As a result of drainage and reclamation of the area, it has completely disappeared from there.
Mediterranean house gecko / Turkish gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus
Overall length up to 12 or 13 cm. The much less frequently encountered of the two gecko species. Since this species is almost exclusively active in the twilight and at night, it can mostly be seen on the walls of houses in the cone of light from streetlights and lights on houses. Otherwise it is practically only ever found under refuse and/or stones. Thanks to its easily spread toes with lamellae for grip on their undersides, it can walk without effort even on smooth vertical walls of houses. However, it cannot climb on (nearly) vertical panes of glass like the larger common wall gecko (Tarentola mauritanica) can, the latter being widespread in the Mediterranean area but absent from Milos.
Kotschy’s gecko, Mediodactylus kotschyi
Overall length up to about 12 cm. As the German name (Nacktfingergecko) indicates, Mediodactylus does not have widely spread toes. So it cannot climb up vertical (nearly) smooth glass surfaces. Nor does it live close to people, whilst the above-mentioned one certainly does. You will usually also find Kotschy’s gecko sunning itself between stones in walls during the day. At the slightest disturbance it will disappear into the cracks but it will soon come back out.
Kotschy’s gecko, photos: Mario Schweiger
Milos wall lizard, Podarcis milensis
Up to about 20 cm long. There’s probably nowhere on Milos where you can’t find the Milos wall lizard. The edges of fields, stream valleys and even parks and gardens in villages are their habitat. When they reach adulthood, the males and females have very different colouring and markings. Whereas the females more or less retain their immature markings – light lengthwise stripes on a brown background, their flanks mostly darker than their backs – the markings of the males change completely. Adult males then have a pattern of light spots on a brown background. On their cheeks and flanks in particular, the background colour is black so that these animals show rich contrasts. They often have vivid blue spots in their axillae (“armpits”) and in the lower part of their flanks.
Milos wall lizard, photos: Mario Schweiger
Milos giant green lizard, Lacerta trilineata hansschweizeri
As the name indicates, the giant green lizard is a powerfully-built, very large lizard which can reach an overall length of about 45 cm. In contrast to the subspecies that occur in other regions, which are mostly beautifully emerald to yellowish-green-coloured, the Milos giant green lizard is more of a dirty greenish-yellow, sometimes even almost grey-coloured. Young animals and juveniles are coffee brown, with or without three light lengthwise stripes (which gives them their scientific name). The giant green lizard prefers to live in areas lush with vegetation (stream valleys, phrygana slopes, edges of fields with bushes) and avoids the vicinity of human activity.
European copper skink, Ablepharus kitaibeli
A small skink, almost snake-like in appearance with very short, thin legs. It looks as if it’s been oiled thanks to its smooth scales. Back golden brown, flanks somewhat darker. Prefers to live in patches of short grass, where it slithers very nimbly and rapidly through the vegetation.
Leopard snake, Zamenis situla
Completely harmless but with a tendency to bite. Length up to 1 metre. Because of its colouring and markings, the most beautiful snake on the island which moreover is almost impossible to mistake. There are two morphs: the more common striped variant, which is unlike those in other distribution ranges on the island, and the spotted variant. The background colour is always silvery grey and in young animals up to 40 or 45 cm even lemon yellow. On this background there are brick red to vibrant red, black-edged saddle spots. The striped morph has 2 red, black-edged lengthwise stripes. The head marking is distinctive; black stripe markings on a light background. A band connects the eyes over the top of the skull.
Leopard snake, photos: Mario Schweiger, Johannes Hill, Francesco Tri
Milos grass snake, Natrix natrix schweizeri
Absolutely harmless. Grass snakes only bite very rarely and only then when they are attacked. To defend themselves they secrete an extremely foul-smelling substance from their anal glands. One unexplained defence strategy is “playing dead.” Here the grass snake turns on to its back with convulsive body movements, opens its mouth and goes totally slack. In the extreme case, blood can even seep from the oral mucous membranes. If you leave the animal in peace, it “comes back to life” immediately and disappears into cover. Length on Milos: usually less than 1 metre. Unlike the other subspecies of grass snake widely distributed in Europe and western Asia that feed on amphibians and fish, the Milos grass snake subspecies specialises in hunting lizards and small mammals. In any event, it would be impossible to do otherwise given the lack of frogs and of course freshwater fish on the island. So it is not usually found near water but instead inhabits almost all types of habitat. 2 colour morphs occur. The normal one has big alternating black spots on a silvery grey background all along its body. Many animals are also black all over. A rare transitional form is called the “picturata” variant. The black animals have a few silvery grey scales scattered at random over their bodies. Unlike other grass snake subspecies, adult Milos grass snakes lack the yellow spots on the back of the head typical of the species.
European cat snake, Telescopus fallax
Colubridae, possibly venomous. European cat snakes have extra-long teeth in the back of the upper jaw with which they work their venom into the wound. Completely harmless to humans. Firstly, when they bite their back teeth rarely come into play because of their small heads. Secondly, the venom is so weak that the most it can do is kill their preferred prey – lizards and geckos. Length up to 1 metre. The European cat snake’s range probably covers the whole island, judging by the finds. However, since this species is almost exclusively active at twilight and night, it is only rarely found alive. Most of the evidence relates to animals that have fallen victim to road traffic. The Europe cat snake looks fairly similar to the grass snake but can be immediately distinguished from the latter by its vertical slit pupils (hence its name).
Milos viper, Macrovipera schweizeri
Before I present the Milos viper, I must dismiss a few horror stories. No viper anywhere in the world and therefore no Milos viper can keep up with a person walking fairly quickly. Their top speed must be only 3-4 kph and even then only over very short distances. And no viper can “pounce” on anyone. The possible reach at most is about the viper’s body length and normally more like about 50% of its body length. With an average body length of 50-70 cm for a Macrovipera schweizeri, it can at most bite from that same distance of 70 cm.
Nevertheless, caution is advised if you encounter a Milos viper. This snake has a very powerful venom that often requires medical treatment with the administration of antiserum. But if you respect a few guidelines (see interview), an encounter with a Milos viper should result in a visually delightful experience. Then you will be facing a species of animal that exists only on Milos and a few neighbouring islands. Because of its very small distribution range, the Milos viper is under the strictest protection. So do not kill any viper (or any other wild animal) but enjoy seeing it.
There are 2 colouring/marking variants. The most common are grey to grey-brown animals with more or less clear brown spot markings on the back. Animals brick red in colour all over are very rare. Reddish animals sporting back markings also occur. These are usually vipers that are not yet fully grown which will turn red all over when adult.
The Milos viper has the typical viper look. A large, triangular head clearly segregated from the neck, a clumsy physique and a short tail clearly segregated from the body. Based on these features alone, confusion with the local non-venomous species is hardly possible. Because all the other snakes on the island have a slender body and a long tail. Only the European cat snake and old grass snakes have a somewhat segregated head. The Milos viper has keeled scales on its back. So it looks dull and does not shine. European cat snakes and leopard snakes have smooth scales and therefore a shiny surface.
Milos viper, photos: Jeroen Speybroeck, Brigitte Mallis, Bernhard Sammler
In addition, there have been constant reports from the island of Milos of other species but these are with almost 100% probability introductions by man (whether deliberate or accidental).
Thus for instance all the tortoises found on Milos (Hermann’s tortoise, Testudo hermanni; marginated tortoise, Testudo marginata) are escaped “pet tortoises.” There is to date no evidence of them reproducing in the wild.
Other individual finds have included the sand boa, Eryx jaculus turcicus. A small boa barely reaching 80 cm that mostly lives “underground.”
And the four-lined snake, Elaphe quatuorlineata, has only been seen a few times. These have probably been introduced from Antimilos, where this species is very familiar. Since Antimilos, like all the rest of the Milos archipelago, is an oceanic island, in other words a volcanic island that grew out of the sea and which had only a brief connection to the mainland, the origin of the four-lined snake on Antimilos is unknown.
Interview: Mario Schweiger on Macrovipera schweizeri (Milos viper)