The below report was researched and written by Mr William Baker, workshop leader for the EuroMed Regional Conference 2019 organised by EGEA Malta.

Introduction

Workshop 4 of EMRC 2019 focused on exploring past and present examples alongside patterns of endemism on the island of Malta. Endemic species are the losers of natural selection due to their geographic isolation they are unable to adapt to any change in the environment; hence having a low ecological tolerance and a narrow biogeographic range. Normally located on islands geographically separated from the continental mainland or ‘islands’ of isolation found within these geographically separate locations due to localised conditions allowing for species specialism to occur. 

Endemism on the Island of Malta

The aim of our fieldwork was to investigate the presence and range of endemic species in certain locations and the factors that ultimately led to their inception and current place within the ecosystem. We began our investigation by examining past examples Maltese endemic species, to our surprise the understanding that this tiny island has previously given rise to island giants such as swans and rabbits, exhibiting height taller than the average human whilst also producing dwarf elephants and hippopotamus was very surprising indeed. In Ghar Dalam cave field excursion saw the excavation site of these now extinct bizarre Maltese endemic species, in addition we learned that species that are large on the mainland once isolated shrink in size due to natural selection, vice versa occurs for small animals.

 

Figure 1: Għar Dalam Cave Museum Exercusion

Fieldwork and Results

Endemic plant species however don’t follow this pattern; instead becoming specialised by taking advantage of niche gap in one soil condition. During our workshop excursion we went to 3 sites to investigate endemic plant distributions, the method used to obtain these results was a systematic line transect taking a representative sample of a locations plant population.

Figure 2: Map of Malta highlighting field excursion sites and Methodology

At site 1 we measured plant coverage to investigate plant abundances in a national park from the coastline because certain plants are affected by salinity and human disturbance. Note that between 0-20m two species of crystal plants are present, specialised to high salinity whereas Calli cannot tolerate high salinity.

Figure 3: Xagħra National Park Line Transect

At site 2 we measured plant coverage to investigate plant abundances in a live firing range to investigate human disturbances from artillery fire and which species can tolerate a highly dynamic environment – sensitive to rapid environmental change. Thistle is a sign of human disturbance and isn’t found where daisies are.

Figure 4: Torri Tal Line Transect

At site 3 discovered that on a headland there were bands plant specialisation with the closest to the sea exploiting high salt concentration then further preventing water loss because of low water availability.

Figure 5: St Mark’s Tower Ecological Tolerance Banding

To summarise clearly physical conditions are the main natural factor controlling the distribution and abundance of endemic plant species on the island of Malta. However; the presence of human activity upsets this previous assumption leading to the rise of pockets of species which would otherwise not be in a certain location. The balance between these two main factors needs to be further researched, an interesting avenue would be to run a line transect through a rural coastal settlement (lightly urbanised) and see any other patterns emerge. This cannot be done through heavily urbanised areas due to the impractically of the task.

Conclusion

The island of Malta has endemic animal and plant species which arose from unique circumstances at the end of the last ice age. Gigantism and dwarfism play major role for animal species, plant species on the other hand are controlled by natural soil characteristics although this can be altered by human activities. Despite endemic species being the ‘weaklings of nature’ these species are treasured as national symbols by islanders like myself reminding us the value of being unique. Demonstrating one-way island life is different in many ways to our mainland counterparts!

A special thank you to:

  • EGEA Malta (organisation)
  • Dr Sandro of the University of Malta (workshop keynote speaker)
  • Mr William Baker (workshop leader)
  • Heritage Malta
  • All other entities involved in the organisation of the scientific congress
  • Workshop 4 team!