Sicily & Aeolian Islands, 26.5. – 6.6.2016

As a holiday destination, the Aeolian Islands first of all are famous for their volcanos. But for us, the endemic Aeolian Wall Lizards were even more interesting goals than those smoking mountains. On the Sicilian mainland we had two targets on our list: the Italian Aesculapian Snake and the Italian Three-toed Skink – all in all, three species we hadn’t seen before. Despite of these tasks we had enough time to enjoy la Dolce Vita. Many thanks to Andre Schmid, Jeroen Speybroeck & Jan van der Voort.


26.5. – Perfect timing


The journey to our first station – Vulcano Island – worked perfectly: At 3:30 pm we arrived at Catania airport; at 5 pm a shuttle bus brought us to Milazzo where we arrived at 7 pm; at 7:10 pm the hydrofoil left Milazzo harbour and brought us to Vulcano where the host of our accommodation picked us up – timing is the key for any good story… Vulcano harbour welcomed us with a sulphuric tang: No doubts how this island received its name. Despite of the strong smell we enjoyed a pleasant Pizza & Pasta dinner and even could photograph the first herps of the trip: Tarentola mauritanica.


27.5. – The „big crater“


Podarcis raffonei (Aeolian Wall Lizard) has been widespread on Vulcano in the past. But meanwhile it has been crowded out by Italian Wall Lizards (Podarcis siculus) which have been introduced by humans, presumably. We wanted to find out if Podarcis raffonei is still present on the Island. Highly motivated, we started to hike on Gran Cratere, a volcanic cone of approx. 400 m altitude. The dusty slopes are covered with yellow flourishing broom. There are records of Podarcis raffonei from 2001 for that area but meanwhile these slopes seem to be completely populated by the highly invasive Podarcis siculus. Rather unlikely that Podarcis raffonei is still present here. On the crater rim there is hardly any vegetation. Smoke and sulphuric exhalations illustrate that this is still an active volcano. In a remote part of the Gran Cratere we finally noticed a greyish-brown lizard which we could identify as Podarcis raffonei. So, this species is still present on Vulcano.


In the afternoon we explored Vulcanello peninsula which also had been populated by Podarcis raffonei in the past. But it seems that meanwhile these lizards have been crowded out in this area by Podarcis siculus as well. Another spot where – according to literature – Podarcis raffonei still occurs turned out to be extremely steep and inaccessible without a boat. So we spent the rest of the day at the beach.

28.5. – Relicts


Another excursion on Gran Cratere: Once again, we tried our luck for Podarcis raffonei – and found only two additional specimens. Furthermore, we saw several hybrids of P. raffonei and P. siculus. Our records of Podarcis raffonei were limited to a small area without vegetation. As soon as there were some green plants nearby, we only found Podarcis siculus. It seems, Podarcis raffonei has been pushed to the most unattractive habitats.


In the locations on Vulcanello and below Gran Cratere which are mentioned in literature, Podarcis raffonei apparently has been crowded out by Podarcis siculus. The relict population on Gran Cratere we visited inhabits an area of only approx. 0.2 square kilometres (maybe some additional specimens occur inside of the crater). Anyhow, this population is probably about to collapse: the population density is very low – according to the sparse habitat – and due to hybridisation with P. siculus pure raffonei phenotypes will likely disappear within the next years. Furthermore, Vulcano always faces the threat of new eruptions which could be fatal for this population, of course.


After these scientific insights we spent the afternoon with a rather touristic program on Lipari.

29.5. – Adrenalin


We left Vulcano and took the hydrofoil to Stromboli. There we had an accommodation with view to Strombolicchio islet. It always had been our dream to visit that islet: Whereas Stromboli is populated by Podarcis siculus, on Strombolicchio – and only there – the nominate taxon of the Aeolian Wall lizard (Podarcis raffonei raffonei) occurs.


Finding a boat to bring us to the islet wasn’t too easy. But an informant gave us the hint to ask for Luigi. Hence we went to the harbour and asked for Luigi. Someone told us the name of a bar where we could meet Luigi. Half an hour later we had found the bar, but he wasn’t there. A lady at the counter asked us if we wanted to have Luigi’s phone number – of course! We called Luigi and agreed that he should pick us up at the bar three hours later, at 3 pm. The chance to make it to Strombolicchio made us more and more excited. Still three hours to wait – we spent the remaining time staring at the sea… at 3:20 pm Luigi finally appeared and brought us to his small rubber boat in the harbour. After we had explained him that we didn’t want to do a sightseeing tour but were interested in lizards, he set off for Strombolicchio directly.


At Strombolicchio, we left the boat and told Luigi to pick us up 90 minutes later. Finding the lizards was easy and we started photographing: impressive, archaic animals. After half an hour, a strong wind came up and the sea suddenly had some alarming white crestwaves. Luigi obviously had noticed this as well and returned ahead of time to pick us up. Our ride back over the rough sea in a small rubber boat was quite an adventure. But we were happy anyhow as we managed to take nice pictures of the lizards. Enough adrenalin for one day…

30.5. – Smoke and ashes


It could have been a relaxed day at the beach but 50% of the team were foolish enough to book a guided hiking tour on the volcano. The tour should start at 5 pm in order to reach the peak at sunset and after nightfall the participants of the tour should be able to admire the volcano’s glowing eruptions. Hence, in the late afternoon numerous hobby volcanologists gathered in the village. Each of them was equipped with an obligatory helmet. Afterwards we started hiking: four groups of about twenty participants each in a single file, 900 meters altitude, lots of dust and sweat…


We reached the peak at sunset – and it suddenly became cloudy. Dense fog blocked the view to the volcano crater. Furthermore, the volcano blew its exhausts directly towards the hikers – quite an impolite mountain. During nightfall frequent explosions and falling stones were heard, but no fireworks could be seen. The guide was optimistic that the wind direction would change soon – but it did not. About 80 freezing hobby vulcanoligists sitting on the peak, enwrapped by a sharp mixture of fog, smoke and dust. Meanwhile, all non-smokers of the team suffered under asthmatic coughing (smoking seems to be an evolutionary advantage in such an environment). Sooner or later everyone realized that he would miss the show – so we started the dusty descent and were back in the village at 11 pm.

31.5. – Almost like holiday…


We wondered if we should visit another Aeolian Island but actually we wanted to go back to Sicilian mainland. So we took the hydrofoil to Milazzo. At Milazzo, a remarkably friendly and competent lady at the local car rental agency gave us the key of our rental car (This seems to be worth mentioning as pleasant experiences with car rental employees are quite rare in general). Next, we went to Taormina at the touristic east coast of Sicily. In this area, there is a population of very colourful Italian Wall Lizards. Formerly they had been described as an own subspecies (Podarcis siculus medemi) but meanwhile it is clear that it is just a colour morph of the nominate taxon. Pretty lizards, anyhow. After an extensive photo session we enjoyed our new life as beach tourists.

1.6. – Biodiversity at Nebrodi NP


Our next station was Nebrodi NP in the North. We had an accommodation in a nice Agritourismo which has been visited by numerous field herpers before. Although it was a cloudy day with even some fog, we went to the mountains for herping. Quite successful: At the end of the day we had Bufo bufo, Discoglossus pictus, Chalcides ocellatus, Chalcides chalcides, Lacerta bilineata, Natrix natrix and Hierophis viridiflavus on our twitch list.

2.6. – Searching for snakes


We visited a small lake in Nebrodi NP where we hoped to find Zamenis lineatus – a species which only occurs in southern Italy and Sicily. The lake revealed a nice herpetofauna: besides of Grass Snakes there were lots of Pool Frogs (Pelophylax lessonae), also Italian Tree Frogs (Hyla intermedia) and European Pond Terrapins (Emys orbicularis). In the surroundings of the lake we came across numerous Western Green Lizards (Lacerta bilineata) and also some Smooth Snakes (Coronella austriaca) – but unfortunately no Zamenis.

3.6. – Mission completed!


We explored a pond near the coast where we hoped for Zamenis lineatus – no luck. So we went to the habitat where we had been the day before for another try. After half an hour a rustling noise in a bush revealed the presence of an Aesculapian Snake: finally! Mission completed – Now this trip’s tick list was completed and we could spend the rest of the day with shopping souvenirs…

4.6. – Towards Etna


We hadn’t seen any volcano since four days – so we headed towards Mount Etna. A stopover in Nebrodi NP brought another Zamenis lineatus. Afterwards we went to Nicolosi at the southern slopes of Etna. In the afternoon we searched for Vipera aspis. But this craggy volcanic area had unlimited hiding places. It was like Easter eggs which have been hidden too well – sooner or later such an Easter egg hunt gets boring… We cancelled our search and did a sightseeing trip to the Etna South mountain station instead.

5.6. – Clouds over Syrakus


The day began rainy at Etna. So we went south to the Syrakus area to search for Sicilian Wall Lizards (Podarcis waglerianus). Despite of dark clouds these lizards were out and we could photograph some of them. Furthermore we found a beautiful dark Hierophis viridiflavus. In we afternoon we returned to Mount Etna for another unsuccessful Vipera search - We had to be satisfied with Italian Wall Lizards. This was already the end of a splendid trip: The next day we had our return flight to Düsseldorf.