Despite its size, Malta can boost of biological richness and great diversity of fauna and flora living in various habitats around the islands. The Maltese climate has had an effect on the way local plant communities have adapted to living. These plant communities are typical of the Mediterranean region and various species which occur represent an ecological succession. (Lanfranco, 2009). The main dominant habitats and assemblages which are known locally and form part of the process of succession are the steppe (Steppa), garrigue (Xaghri), maquis (Makkja) and evergreen wood (Masgar). In some localities it's hard to classify communities (since they aren't always defined and appear as different stages of ecological succession) into the abovementioned habitats. (Lanfranco, L-Ambjent Naturali tal-Gzejjer Maltin, 2002)
Steppe, the first stage in the ecological succession, is often taken to be the most degraded form of Mediterranean vegetation deriving from maquis and garrigue caused by overgrazing, poor agricultural practice, fire and similar disastrous disturbances. This widespread habitat is still rich in species and is characterised by herbaceous plants namely grasses (including Steppe Grass and Oat-Grass), umbellifers (example the Fennel), legumes (example Common Vetch), thistle and tuberous or bulbous species. Geophytes also occur, with the most dominant of these being the branched Asphodel. This habitat is one without trees, plants that have little wood, most of which are annuals. During the winter season the habitat is full of plants whilst during dry seasons, it appears dry and impoverished because many species will be present in the form of seeds. Other interesting steppe communities are those found on clay slopes which is dominated by Esparto Grass. (Lanfranco, 2009); (Lanfranco, L-Ambjent Naturali tal-Gzejjer Maltin, 2002); (MEPA)
The second stage is the garrigue habitat. This is the most common natural vegetation type present in Malta and occurs on exposed, karstic rocky land. It is a community of scattered, low lying (less than 1m), small shrubs. The Wild Thyme, native Maltese Spurges, Yellow Kidney Vetch, Olive-leaved Germander and Mediterranean Heath are amongst the dominant shrubs to grow in this habitat. Animal and plant species are also plentiful. Rare species like the Maltese Spider Orchid and the endemic Maltese Shrew live in this habitat together with the Maltese Salt-Tree and the Maltese Rock-Centaury. (Lanfranco, 2009) (Lanfranco, L-Ambjent Naturali tal-Gzejjer Maltin, 2002) (MEPA)
Maquis is next in the ecological succession. This habitat is mostly an evergreen shrub community, which ranges from heights between 1-3m. It is most often found in areas which are hard to get to and hardly affected by man but which have enough water and soil to allow small trees or large shrubs to grow. Maquis is typically found on the sides of steep valleys, at the foot of inland cliffs and also in small sheltered pockets where there is no active grazing. All the local maquis is of secondary origin and is characterised by species like the Carob Tree, Olive Tree, Lentisk tree, Wild Fig, Wild Almond and Bay Laurel. Some rare species are also found like those based on the Myrtle and the Maltese National Tree - the Sandaric Gum Tree. Oak and Pine from woodland species lso feature in maquis communities. Due to its complex structure which can sustain many plants and animals as well as it's protective features, this habitat is rich in both animal and plant species. Examples include climbers like Ivy, the Common Smilax, the Spiny Asparagus and Wild Madder. (Lanfranco, 2009) (Lanfranco, L-Ambjent Naturali tal-Gzejjer Maltin, 2002) (MEPA)
Evergreen woodland is another habitat which is most typical of the Mediterranean and primarily dominated by hard-leaved evergreen trees and large shrubs such as the Aleppo Pine. It is the highest type of vegetation locally and is the climax of the ecological succession. Almost all existing woodland in Malta is the result of man-made forest projects like that at Buskett which has become a semi-natural woodland. Otherwise, the Evergreen woods have been virtually destroyed. (Lanfranco, 2009) (Lanfranco, L-Ambjent Naturali tal-Gzejjer Maltin, 2002) (MEPA); (Project Gaia)
Malta also features disturbed habitats. These habitats have become the most widespread over the islands due to the high degree of human impact. Alien species such as the Crown Daisy dominants this habitat. (Mifsud, 2002-2008). Malta also has wetland communities, although not very common. Saline Marshlands are areas formed by a mixture of marine, freshwater and land environment and contribute to the Maltese habitats although they have been disturbed by man locally. We find a number of these habitats like the Ghadira Nature Reserve, Salina bay, Simar Nature Reserve, at Ramlet il-Qortin and several others. Such habitats attract migratory species of birds (example the Little Bittern) and important for waterfowl. Flora found here (example Sea Rush, the Common Reed and Sharp Rush) must be able to withstand high salinity in order to survive. (Darmanin); (MEPA). Rare local habitats are the sand dunes. These are associated with sandy beaches and only a few sand dune systems remain due to beach development. They are dominated by the dune grass which has adapted to the harsh conditions of the habitat (dryness, high temperature, accumulation of sand and occasional flood by seawater). Flora such as Sea Rocket, Sand Dropwort and the Prickly Saltwort are found living on sand dunes. (MEPA). Other local habitats include Valley Watercourses (one of the most species-rich habitats on a local scale) (MEPA), freshwater habitats (variety of aquatic and semi-aquatic species) (MEPA); caves (inhabited by organisms like bats and endemic species to the Maltese Islands) (MEPA) and rupestral communities. These grow on cliff faces like Dingli Cliffs. It offers shelter and breeding for many bird species like the Maltese National Bird (Blue Rock Thrush), animals (Maltese Door Snail) and flora (Caper plants). In Malta, these communities are the same on bastion walls. (Lanfranco, L-Ambjent Naturali tal-Gzejjer Maltin, 2002); (Darmanin)
Being surrounded by the sea, we cannot forget that Malta has Marine habitats. Four zones exist namely the supralittoral, mediolittoral, infralittoral and circalittoral/sublittoral. Supralittoral includes rocky shores (most common), sandy shores (soft substratum) and Posidonia banquettes which is a distinctive feature of this zone. The Mediolittoral zone is found in parts of the shore that are continuously covered and uncovered by the sea meaning that species living here need to be covered with sea water but are also able to live without it for some time example algae. Infralittoral zones occur under the sea level down to a depth where seagrasses and photophilic algae live. In Malta, this depth is on average 50m. (MEPA). The zone includes Cystoseira, Seagrass and Posidonia communities with the Seagrass meadows being of utmost importance in terms of productivity and serves as a home for a number of marine invertebrates. The last zone, Circalittoral, consists of coralline and maerl communities. It extends down to about 200m (MEPA) and is home to many species like heart urchins, sea pens and Mesophyllum lichenoides. (MEPA) (Schembri & Baldacchino, 1992).
- Darmanin, S. A. (n.d.). Local Ecosystems. Retrieved January 3rd, 2010, from BioClix: www.bioclix.org
- Lanfranco, S. (2009). An Introduction to the Maltese Natural Environment [Lecture Notes] , University of Malta, Department of Environmental Science.
- Lanfranco, S. (2002). L-Ambjent Naturali tal-Gzejjer Maltin. PIN.
- MEPA. (2009). Habitats. Retrieved December 28, 2009, from MEPA: http://www.mepa.org.mt/biodiversity-habitats
- MEPA. (n.d.). Marine Habitats. Retrieved January 5th, 2010, from MEPA: http://www.mepa.org.mt/biodiversity-habitats-marine
- MEPA. (n.d.). Terrestrial Habitats. Retrieved December 28th, 2009, from MEPA: http://www.mepa.org.mt/biodiversity-habitats-terrestrial##1
- Mifsud, S. (2002-2008). Vegetation of the Maltese Islands. Retrieved January 3rd, 2010, from Malta Wild Plants: http://www.maltawildplants.com/index.html#VG-4ST
- Project Gaia. (n.d.). Olympus - Coastal Area Conservation. Retrieved January 3rd, 2010, from Project Gaia: http://www.projectgaia.org/olympus.htm
- Schembri, P. J., & Baldacchino, A. E. (1992). Ilma, Blat u Hajja - Is-Sisien ta' l-Ambjent Naturali Malti. Msida: University of Malta.