Flora and Fauna in Palestine

By: Dr. Sc. Norman Ali Bassam Ali Taher Khalaf-Sakerfalke von Jaffa

Fauna in Palestine:

As in many Western countries, a growing population and increasing industrial development in Palestine and Israel are destroying natural habitats, propelling biodiversity into a decline. Palestine and Israel have responded by pronouncing a fifth of the land area as nature reserves.

The history of animal life in Palestine stretches back some 60 million years, when the sea covering the area finally retreated. It was during the Pleistocene era, however, a million years ago, that an influx of creatures especially decisive for the development of animal life in this part of the world arrived. Animals which are now characteristic of the East African savannas moved into the area: hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), rhinoceros, warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and various species of gazelle. They were later joined by animals migrating from western and central Asia - wild horses (Equus ferus), wild asses, wolves (Canis lupus) and badgers.

Changes in climate, destruction of forests and hunting have resulted in the extermination of many of these species. The introduction of firearms at the end of the 19th century along with the tradition of hunting, for example, resulted in the rapid disappearance of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), fallow deer (Dama dama), Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), Syrian onagers (Equus hemionus), Syrian bears (Ursus arctos syriacus), cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), ostriches (Struthio camelus) and Nile crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus). Hunting is still permitted in Palestine and Israel, although the Palestinian Environment Law no. 7 of 1999, and the Israeli Wildlife Protection Law of 1955 restricts the hunting season and hunting areas, as well as prohibiting certain methods of hunting (traps, explosives, poisoning). Hare, wild boar (Sus scrofa), partridge and some duck species may be hunted, but in limited numbers and only with a permit.

Mammals:

Today, the largest Mammals are Palestinian mountain gazelles or Edmi (Gazella gazella gazella), Palestine wild boar (Sus scrofa libycus), foxes like the Palestinian red fox (Vulpes vulpes palaestina), Palestinian jungle cats (Felis chaus furax), Nubian ibex (Capra ibex nubiana) and the rarely seen Arabian leopard or Nimr (Panthera pardus nimr), Arabian caracal lynx (Felis caracal schmitzi), Syrian striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena syriaca), Palestinian golden jackals (Canis aureus palaestina Khalaf, 2008), Arabian wolves (Canis lupus arabs), Persian honey badgers or ratel (Mellivora capensis wilsoni), Persian common badgers (Meles meles canescens) and Persian common river otters (Lutra lutra seistanica).

Foto: The Palestine Golden Jackal (Canis aureus palaestina Khalaf, 2008).

Palestine is home to a large variety of smaller mammals; from bats (over 30 species), hedgehogs, the Syrian hare (Lepus capensis syriacus), the Syrian rock hyrax or coney (Procavia capensis syriaca), the Syrian squirrel (Sciurus anomalus syriacus), the Indian crested porcupine (Hystrix indica), Palestine's largest rodent; to the exotic sounding Palestine short-tailed bandicoot rat (Nesokia indica bacheri), Cairo spiny mouse (Acomys cahirinus), the Palestine golden spiny mouse (Acomys russatus harrisoni Atallah, 1970), the Gaza or Palestine house mouse (Mus musculus gazaensis Khalaf, 2007), desert jerboas like the Palestine or Jaffa lesser jerboa (Jaculus jaculus schlueteri), gerbils, jirds like the Palestine or Naqab (Negev) jird (Meriones sacramenti), the Palestine fat sand rat (Psammomys obesus terraesanctae), to the more mundane sounding brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), Palestine or Jaffa mole rat (Spalax microphthalmus ehrenbergi), dormice, Syrian grey hamsters (Cricetulus migratorius cinerascens), Syrian or golden hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus), the Günther's social vole (Microtus socialis guentheri), the Palestine lesser white-toothed shrew (Crocidura suaveolens portali) and the nutria or coypu (Myocastor coypus).

Foto: The Gaza or Palestine House Mouse (Mus musculus gazaensis Khalaf, 2007).

In all, there are 116 different species of Mammals in Palestine, compared with 140 in the whole of Europe, which is 300 times larger. This is an impressive figure for a small country, but the numbers of animals within each species is shrinking.

Since the 1960s, the Israeli Nature Reserves Authority has been reintroducing populations of animals which were native to the area in biblical times, under a program known as Hai-Bar. Breeding centers for Mediterranean animals (in the Carmel) and desert animals (at Yotvata in the Wadi Araba) have been set up, and five species selected for the first stage: ostriches, roe deer, Asiatic wild asses (Equus hemionus), Persian fallow deer (Dama dama mesopotamica) and white oryx (Oryx leucoryx). All except the roe deer are globally endangered. The founder animals for each species came from both zoos and the wild, around the world. Successful reintroductions into the wild have already been implemented for the Asiatic wild ass (starting in 1982), the fallow deer (since 1996) and the white oryx (since 1997).

Birds:

Palestine's location on the migration route from Europe and Western Asia to Africa is responsible for the very large number of bird species in the country. The volume of avian travelers is so massive, in fact that their migration routes are carefully monitored, and aircraft are forbidden to fly in these paths.

Honey buzzards (Pernis apivorus) and pelicans are among the larger migrants that fill the skies in March and October. Coots and starlings spend winters here feasting on food provided by Palestine's fish farms and farmland. The Palestine Sunbird or Northern Orange-tufted Sunbird (Cinnyris oseus), bulbul (Pycnonotidae) and songbirds such as sylvia warblers and goldcrests (Regulus regulus) nest here year round. A number of raptor species - among them imperial eagles (Aquila heliaca) and spotted eagles (Aquila clanga), falcons, hawks, sparrowhawks, kestrels and long-legged buzzards (Buteo rufinus) - make their home in Palestine.

 

Foto: The Palestinian National Bird: The Palestine Sunbird (Cinnyris oseus).

Raptors of today are, however, only a fraction of the large population that lived in the country as recently as the 19th century. Hunting, poisoning and drastically fewer animal carcasses left lying in open fields have all taken their toll, and it is now planned to bolster endangered raptor species and reintroduce those that are extinct. Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus), lappet-faced or Nubian vultures (Torgos tracheliotos), lanner falcons (Falco biarmicus), white-tailed sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) and lesser kestrels (Falco naumanni) are being bred in captivity; feeding stations are provided in the wild, and their nesting sites are protected.

Reptiles:

There are 97 different native reptile species. They include two chameleon subspecies, the Mediterranean chameleon (chamaeleo chamaeleon recticrista), found in central and northern Palestine, and the Sinai chameleon chamaeleo chamaeleon musae, found in southern desert regions. Many lizards like the Lebanon lizard (lacerta laevis), the roughtail rock agama (laudakia stellio stellio), desert monitors (Varanus griseus), Egyptian dabb or mastigure or spiny-tailed lizard (uromastyx aegyptius), skinks, geckos like the Mediterranean gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus) are all living in Palestine.

Palestine is home to a broad selection of turtles representing several different orders: pond turtles, land turtles, softshell turtles, sea turtles and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea).                                                                             Palestine has two species of land tortoises: the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera), the most common turtle in Palestine and the much rarer Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni), a desert species. The temperate Mediterranean tortoise was one of the first creatures in Palestine to be declared a protected species because its popularity as a pet, and in some Mediterranean countries, as a delicacy. In fact in many parts of its range it is now extinct or endangered. In Palestine though you can still come across the tortoise in many areas, local parks and gardens, especially during the spring.

Another easily seen turtle is the Caspian turtle or Striped-neck terrapin (Mauremys caspica), which is found in ponds, drainage ditches, lakes, sewage ditches and wetland areas. While the highly endangered African softshell turtle (Trionyx triunguis) is on the verge of extinction in this country, due to the pollution of Palestine's coastal rivers, the Caspian turtle thrives in polluted water, with particularly high concentrations found in sewage runoff and sewage treatment pools. While Caspian turtles can be found all over central and northern Palestine, the Hula nature reserve in northern Palestine is a particularly good place to see them, as wooden boardwalks allow you to walk over the marsh and lake and see the turtles up close. They enjoy sunning themselves on rocks and logs by the water, often stacked on top of each other in piles as many as seven turtles high.

Marine turtles are much less easy to spot, and sadly, are highly endangered. As in many Mediterranean countries, the development of Palestine's coastal cities and beaches has dealt a harsh blow to sea turtles, which lay their eggs on Palestine's beaches. Conservation efforts are underway in Palestine and Israel to protect this species, with protected beaches on both the Mediterranean and Red Sea coast (Aila or Eilat).

There are about 40 species of snake in Palestine from tiny, pink, worm-like blind worm snakes (Leptotyphlops macrorhynchus) which live underground to impressive specimens such as the desert dwelling Persian horned viper (Pseudocerastes persicus), one of the few poisonous Palestinian species.

The great majority of Palestine's snakes are harmless to humans, performing a public service by eating rodents and invertebrates.

Foto: The Palestine Viper (Vipera palaestinae).

Many biblical verses appear to describe types of snake found in Palestine to this day. Snakes mentioned by name include desert species such as the black desert cobra (Walterinnesia aegyptia), Persian horned viper and the Palestine saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus), as well as the Palestinian viper (Vipera palaestinae) found in temperate parts of the country.

Amphibians:

Nine amphibian species have been recorded in Palestine: One newt species, one salamander species and seven species of frogs and toads.    
Amphibians in Palestine belong to two orders; (i) Caudata; (ii) Salientia or Anura; six families: (i) Salamandridae; (ii) Bufonidae; (iii) Hylidae, (iv) Ranidae, (v) Pelobatidae, (vi) Discoglossidae; and seven genera, five of which are important wetland species.

Foto: The extinct Palestinian or Hula Painted Frog (Discoglossus nigriventer).

The most commonly seen in Palestine is the European Green Toad (Bufo viridis). The other species are: The Syrian or Eastern Spadefoot Toad (Pelobates syriacus), the Anatolian or Savigny's Tree Frog (Hyla savignyi), the newly discovered Jerusalem or Judean Hills tree frog (Hyla heinzsteinitzi), the Marsh or Lake Frog (Rana ridibunda), the Edible or Water Frog (Rana esculenta), and the extinct Palestinian or Hula Painted Frog (Discoglossus nigriventer) (Khalaf-von Jaffa, February 2007). The two other amphibians are: The endangered Near Eastern Fire Salamander (Salamandra maculosa infraimmaculata) and the rare Southern Banded Newt or Triton (Triturus vittatus) (Khalaf-Sakerfalke von Jaffa, December 2008).

Invertebrates:

Because invertebrates were decimated by human activity less than higher classes were, they are the best example of the country's position as a meeting ground for creatures of extremely divergent geographic origin. The number of insects, spiders, crustaceans and other invertebrates reaches an estimated 30,000 species, and there is an incredible variety of forms and colours. In addition to countrywide species, many are restricted to limited areas. Richest in invertebrate fauna are regions which abound in warmth, water and vegetation, such as the Hula Valley, the valleys around the Sea of Tiberias, and some of the northern parts of the Coastal Plain. The use of insecticides and biological warfare against crop pests or plagues succeeds in reducing the attacked species greatly, but only rarely makes it disappear. The introduction of new farming crops also brings the appearance of new pests, previously unknown; cotton growing, since the beginning of the 1950s, caused the spreading of the Egyptian cotton bollworm (Earias insulana). The introduction of groundnuts brought other species; citrus growers must wage constant war against the Mediterranean fruit fly or medfly (Ceratitis capitata). Of creatures harmful to man, best known are scorpions, among them the common black scorpion (Nebo hierichonticus) and the more dangerous yellow scorpion (Buthus quinquestriatus). The bite of a large spider, the black widow (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus), may cause considerable trouble (Khalaf, 2001, in “Gazelle: The Palestinian Biological Bulletin” Website).

Animals Unique to Palestine:

Mammals found only in this region include four chromosomal species of the Palestine blind mole rat (Spalax ehrenbergi) and the Naqab or Negev Shrew (Crocidura ramona). Other unique Palestinian species include the newly discovered Palestine Golden Jackal (Canis aureus palaestina Khalaf, 2008), the Gaza or Palestine House Mouse (Mus musculus gazaensis Khalaf, 2007), the Palestine Sunbird (Cinnyris oseus) and the Palestine or Yellow-vented or White-eyed Bulbul (Pycnonotus xanthopygos). The Be’er Al-Sabae’ (Be'er Sheva) Fringe-fingered Lizard Acanthodactylus beershebensis is a critically endangered endemic reptile.  Endemic amphibians include the recently discovered Jerusalem or Judean Hills tree frog Hyla heinzsteinitzi and the extinct Palestinian or Hula Painted Frog Discoglossus nigriventer, last collected in 1955.         

Freshwater fish species unique to the area include the Tiberias or Kinneret Bleak Acanthobrama terraesanctae, the Al-Auja (Yarqon) or Tel Aviv Bleak Acanthobrama telavivensis, the extinct Hula bleak Acanthobrama hulensis, and the possibly extinct Long-jaw Tristram Tilapia Tristramella sacra. The Ben-Tuvia’s Goby Didogobius bentuvii is apparently known only from the type collected in the Mediterranean off the mouth of the Rubin River.

Foto: The Jaffa Marine Amphipod (Ampelisca jaffaensis) from Jaffa, Palestine.

The most distinctive endemic invertebrate is the Ayalon Cave blind scorpion Akrav israchanani known only from Ayalon Cave and the sole member of the family Akravidae.  Endemic insects include the Naqab jewel beetle Xantheremia freidbergi, the northern Palestine longhorned beetle Agapanthia orbachi, the Israeli leaf beetle Gonioctena israelita, and the Palestinian grasshopper Sphingonotus angulatus.  Other endemic invertebrates include the Ayalon Cave blind prawn Typhlocaris ayyaloni, the Palestinian jumping spider Salticus amitaii, the Israeli scorpion Birulatus israelensis, the Jerusalem or Judean Hills centipede Cryptops pori, and the Jaffa marine amphipod (Ampelisca jaffaensis Bellan-Santini & Kaim-Malka, 1977) from Jaffa, Palestine (Khalaf-von Jaffa, July 2005).

Aila's Coral Reef:

The coral reef of Aila (Eilat) is regarded as a national treasure, and its corals, sponges and shellfish have been protected since 1956. The reef ecosystem is one of the most diverse in the world: 1,270 different species of fish, belonging to 157 families, make their home there, along with hundreds of species of coral and 1,120 species of mollusk. The region's rich fauna attracts frequent visits of large vertebrates, such as whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), dugongs (Dugong dugon), and dolphins, and the beach area is a nesting site for hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricate). The waters above the coral reef are a popular feeding ground and a vital resting place for some 280 species of birds that overfly this area in fall and spring, en route to Africa from Europe in the fall and vice versa in the spring.