Unique encounters: discover our endemic natural heritage

Malta has several endemic plants and animals, and meeting them must surely be on your list of nature to discover with your child
The Maltese rock centaury, our national plant, grows on cliff edges. Photo: Joe Sultana

If you’ve heard the word “endemic” it was probably said with a tinge of awe, and rightly so, because whichever plant or animal was the focus of the discussion, it is unique to one place in the world. That place may well be a continent-sized region, like Australia, but, incredibly, it could be a rock-sized island like Malta.

Malta has several endemic plants and animals, and meeting them must surely be on your list of nature to discover with your child. Just like the Maltese cross or Malta lace, our endemics define our island’s uniqueness, even if most of them will never make it to the tourist brochures.

The wow factor of an endemic plant or animal is that you will find it nowhere else in the world.

Journey to endemism

The story of every endemic species is forged through a combination of geography, time and adaptation. Take for instance, the story of prehistoric Malta’s dwarf elephant: six million years ago, the African and European plates moved closer until they collided, cutting off the Meiterranean (then known as the Tethys Sea) from the Atlantic. Animals roamed freely over the newly formed land bridge, now no longer restricted by sea as this had dried up into a salt desert.

“The wow factor of an endemic plant or animal is that you will find it nowhere else in the world”

About 5.3 million years ago, the continents moved again, opening the Straits of Gibraltar and allowing the Mediterranean basin to fill up. The Maltese Islands were once again cut off from the mainland and animals that were trapped here were forced to adapt to their new, reduced circumstances, or die.

A large elephant, suited to the much larger African plains, could not find enough food to sustain its massive bulk. Over thousands of generations, the Maltese elephant grew smaller until it reached a size that matched the available food in our islands. An endemic species was born.


Children may not relate so easily to the past but initiating them into our islands’ heritage of endemic species can weave new threads in the fabric of their cultural identity. Speak of a time in the past when the species “became Maltese”, like a family of foreigners who gradually take on our ways of life.

Endemic species evolve because there are physical conditions in a limited geographical area that forces a plant or animal to change so that it becomes better adapted to those conditions. Due to our physical isolation as an island, Malta has presented the ideal conditions for endemic plants and animals to evolve. This article presents just a few of our endemic natural heritage.

Maltese wall lizard

Among our easiest to find endemics is the Maltese Wall Lizard. All the lizards you will see in the wild are endemic. If you don’t have a field or garden, pop over to a public garden and choose a sunny day. In spring, the males develop an orange hue around their throat, which they flaunt proudly as they vie for females. Such a male is called ‘dorbi’ in Maltese. The drabber brown females watch, wait and choose.

The Maltese wall lizard is found more often in gardens and farms than in open countryside. Photo: Desirée Falzon

Maltese rock centuary

Adapted to a harsh life on our seacliffs, the Maltese rock centaury is our national plant. Its succulent leaves store rainwater when this is available, allowing it to survive in barely any soil on vertical limestone covered in sea spray.

The pretty dark pink fluffy flowers open in May-July. Look out for them around Delimara or Dingli Cliffs, creating the perfect photo against a backdrop of deep blue sea.

Maltese ferule

This interesting plant should be easy to find. At this time of year its tall stems tower above competing vegetation on steppes, rocky areas, abandoned fields and footpaths. Its unmistakable umbrella-shaped yellow flowerheads tower above surrounding vegetation, calling out to pollinators far and wide.

When you find a Maltese ferule, have a close look at the green sepal covering the unopened flowers and see if you can find drops of the whitish resin coveted by honeybees for hive waterproofing.

Imprint this striking endemic plant’s almost-sickly sweet scent on your child’s memory and spice it with a tale from Ancient Greece about fire, secrecy and punishment. In Greek mythology, the titan Prometheus defied the Olympian gods by stealing fire and taking it down to his human friends. As a consequence, he was subjected to eternal torment. In the myth, Prometheus carried a glowing ember inside the hollow stem of a ferule.

Maltese glow-worm

The Maltese glow-worm is one of those animals you’ll spot when you’re focusing your gaze downwards. Children are very good at getting intrigued by small subjects, so when you’re in habitats with stones and hard soil, give your child the task of looking out for a small, flat, black strip, walking the way caterpillars do.

This is what a glow-worm looks like at first glance and it’s the young larva that is spotted more frequently than the adults. You may be lucky enough to find a glow-worm larva indulging its carnivorous diet on a hapless snail or slug.

The flightless female resembles the young but at night has a glowing back end that signals her position to the flying males, who swoop down and wed the lady.

A Maltese Glow-worm larva feeds off a slug. Photo: Victor Falzon

Maltese pyramidal orchid

Around 40 different species of orchids grow in Malta. Orchids have long been prized for their beauty and complex evolutionary adaptations to the insects that pollinate them.

Orchids have two underground bulbs. They alternate from using one bulb to the other every year, giving them their Maltese name “ħajja w mejta”. An expert, readable book on Maltese orchids is Orchids of the Maltese Islands by Stephen Mifsud.

One special orchid is the endemic Maltese pyramidal orchid, which flowers in February–March in garrigue areas. It grows a mere 10cm from the ground, its bloom a tightly clustered pyramid of tiny pink flowers. Don’t forget to take in a whiff of the orchid’s sweet perfume before you leave the site.

Sweet-smelling Maltese pyramidal orchids are among the first orchids to open. Photo: Alex Casha

Maltese spurge

Among the large variety of spurge shrubs growing in our islands, the endemic Maltese Spurge will arguably catch your child’s fancy most. Looking like overgrown, green hedgehogs, a stretch of garrigue filled with Maltese spurge is a wonderful sight.

One very good place to walk among Maltese spurge is the country lane from the Red Tower in Mellieħa to the cliff edge at Il-Qammiegħ. In spring, each shrub fills with a profusion of tiny yellow flowers that give the impression of an artist’s paintbrush carefully dabbing highlighter on every bush. The flowers’ lemon yellow is offset by the dark green leaves, irresistibly luring the insects that will pollinate them.

The tiny yellow flowers of the Maltese spurge make a striking contrast with its dark green leaves. Photo: Victor Falzon

Population pressures

Our islands’ heavy population is taking its toll on our wildlife. Endemic species are more at risk from extinction than other wildlife as there are no reserves in other countries to fall back on if we drive one to extinction.

This is even more reason to make your child aware of these evolutionary marvels that have taken millennia to forge a unique place in our very own islands. Safeguard their future by making each of your child’s encounters with our endemic nature as special as the long journey it has taken it to arrive here.

Desirée Falzon is a naturalist and field teacher with BirdLife Malta.

All the articles in this series are available here. For more environment-related articles, follow this link.

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