Israel's unique geography endows it with a huge variety of plants and animals, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. These unique species’ limited distribution also deems them more vulnerable to extinction
Located at the boundary between two continents, Israel is characterized by a large number of distinct habitats: the climate and soil of the Golan Heights, for instance, are very different from those of the Coastal Plain, the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the Negev or the Arabah. As an outcome, Israel has a very large biological diversity relative to its size. Some 2,400 plant species, 100 mammalian species, and 450 bird species live and reproduce in Israel.
Some of these species are endemic to Israel, that is, they exist only in Israel. In this article, we will get to know some of them: the gazelle that has become a trademark; the daring bird that prospers among humans; the frog that we had thought was lost forever until it reappeared; along with the iris, pancratium (sand lily), and garlic that blossom only here.
Land of the Gazelle (“Eretz Hatzvi”) is one of the Land of Israel’s nicknames, originating in the Book of Daniel. In the biblical source, the word gazelle probably does not signify the animal – the Hebrew word for gazelle ("Tzvi") also means glory, beauty, or splendor, and therefore “Land of the Gazelle” may be interpreted as “glorious land.”
Nevertheless, Israel is definitely also a land of gazelles. They have been in the Land of Israel since biblical times and came to be one of its symbols. Nowadays, several genera of gazelles inhabit Israel. The Palestine mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella in Latin) is a subspecies of the mountain gazelle, also found in Iran and Turkey. Studies have shown that this subspecies is a genetically distinct population. In the past, the Palestine mountain gazelle was also prevalent in Jordan and Syria, and during colder eras, reached as far south as the Sinai Peninsula, but today it is found only in Israel.
Israel’s gazelle population is estimated at 2,000 individuals, found in the Galilee, the Golan Heights, and the Judean Desert. The population is gradually declining, due to habitat loss, as landscape is transformed by agriculture and construction; an increase in the number of predators, such as wolves, jackals, and stray dogs; and hunting. In addition, every spring, hikers mistakenly “rescue” gazelle fawns they find in the meadow, thinking that their mother had abandoned them.
While meaning well, out of concern for the young gazelle’s safety, these “rescuers” are actually sentencing the fawn to a life of captivity in a zoo. Following birth, the mother hides her young offspring in the meadow and stays away in order to divert potential predators’ attention, returning for periodic nursing and caretaking breaks. So if you come across a seemingly abandoned gazelle fawn, keep your distance and do not touch it: rest assured that the mother is nearby, waiting to return to her young.
Another subspecies of the mountain gazelle that is also unique to Israel is the Arabah mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella acacia). With a population of only 20-30 individuals, almost all of them at the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, this gazelle is under an even greater extinction threat.
The third gazelle species in Israel is the dorcas gazelle (Gazella dorcas), also found in numerous regions of North Africa. These gazelles are well-adapted to the desert and can live almost without drinking water, obtaining most of the liquids they need from the acacia leaves they eat. In Israel, there are 1,000-1,500 individuals, found in the Negev and Arabah regions.
As mentioned earlier, hunting is a threat to the gazelle population in Israel. In a 2016 paper, a research team from the Hebrew University, led by Dr. Gila Kahila Bar-Gal, suggested applying forensic tools to find the hunters and prosecute them to protect the animals. In one case, they were able to identify Palestine mountain gazelle blood on the weapons, bags, and even clothes of a hunter, and to determine that the blood came from three individual gazelles. The researchers hope that this type of technology will help protect the gazelle population.
A subspecies of the mountain gazelle, the Palestine mountain gazelle’s distribution was wider in the past. Now it is found only in Israel | Shutterstock
The ibexes in Ein Gedi know exactly where to go for relief from ticks and other parasites: the Tristram’s starlings (Onychognathus tristramii). These birds, living around the Dead Sea, the Negev, and Arabah, delouse the ibexes and receive a nice meal in return – a win-win situation.
The monks at Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert know these little birds well. They called them “orange-winged blackbirds,” because of their black color and bright orange wings. Actually, they belong to the starling family and were called in the past “Dead Sea starling.” Today, the species is named after Henry Baker Tristram, a 19th century clergyman and ornithologist, who visited the Land of Israel five times and collected some 400 animal species. Many of them were unknown to science, including the bird that was to become his namesake.
Aside from ibex ticks, Tristram’s starlings consume fruit and insects. In contrast to its effect on many other wild animals, accelerated human settlement in the region has actually expanded the starlings’ habitat, providing it with additional food sources. The starlings complement their diet by visiting vineyards and date palm crops, sometimes causing significant agricultural damage. Nowadays, they also frequent the parking lots of Ein Gedi and Masada reserves, where they collect unfortunate insects that had crashed into the windshields of the cars. Tristram’s starlings also look through garbage that people leave behind. Rumor has it that Bamba is their favorite.
The starlings’ relationship with humans is not new. The monks of Mar Saba fed them raisins and carved out nesting compartments for them, and today, they have been known to take food out of trekkers’ hands. In fact, some of the birds moved their usual nesting place, the mountain clefts, closer to human settlements.
In the 1930s, there were only about 20 nesting couples, but today, probably because of their adaptation to humans, there are hundreds of Tristram’s starling couples, which have spread to Arabah, Arad, Dimona, and Jerusalem. A few years ago, one couple was even found nesting on Temple Mount.
Tristram’s starling, named after researcher and clergyman Henry Baker Tristram, resides in the Negev Desert and Arabah | Wikipedia, Oriaaaass
Numerous animals that roamed our country in the past have already vanished: the Asiatic lion, for instance, was extinct from the region by the 13th century and the Syrian bear was not seen here since the 19th century. The disappearance of animals endemic to Israel is even more unfortunate, as it indicates the complete extinction of the species. This was the case for the Hula painted frog (Latonia nigriventer), which became extinct following the draining of Lake Hula, or at least so we thought – until November 2011.
The story of the Hula painted frog begins in the 1940, when zoologists from the Biological-Pedagogical Institute in Tel Aviv and from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem found two individuals in the Lake Hula region and collected them for taxonomy. Another individual was brought to The Hebrew University in 1955 and was the last one that any researcher was to see for 50 years. Draining Lake Hula eliminated most of the known habitat of the species, and it was assumed to be extinct along with other Lake Hula residents, like the Hula bream.
And then, one bright day in the fall of 2011, Yoram Malka, an Israel Nature and Parks Authority ranger, found a frog he did not recognize in the Hula Nature Reserve. He managed to catch it and show it to experts that came to the reserve the following day. They determined that this frog, in fact, belonged to that long-gone species – the Hula painted frog, or in Hebrew – Agulashon Shehor-Gahon (black-bellied round-tongue). Its Hebrew name stems from the fact that it does not have a long tongue like other frogs and it does not use it to catch pray, as well as from – you probably guessed it – its black belly. Well, at least a mostly black belly – since it is decorated by numerous white spots.
Not surprisingly, the discovery caused quite a stir. “I thought there might be a chance that this species would be found again, but I never thought I would have the honor of witnessing it,” said Dr. Sarig Gafni from the School of Marine Sciences at the Ruppin Academic Center, one of the experts who inspected and confirmed the identity of the amphibian.
In the years following the discovery, researchers and rangers scoured the reeds and blackberry bushes for additional individuals, but the painted frogs were so well camouflaged in the dark mud that over the course of three years only twenty individuals were found. “By the end of 2014, we found one painted frog in the water in one of the towns in the area, and realized we were looking in the wrong place,” said Gafni to Haaretz. As it turns out, the Hula painted frog prefers life in the water and is mostly active at night. Once the quest for the frog was conducted at the right time and place, researchers began catching many more individuals, up to dozens in a single night. Today, the number of painted frogs in the Hula Nature Reserve area is estimated in the hundreds.
Researchers also apply novel technologies to track these amphibians. They have developed a sensitive DNA test that can identify their traces in water samples, up to two weeks since the last time a painted frog was in that water. Analysis of bodies of water around the Hula Nature Reserve indicate that the painted frogs are prevalent in numerous places, including Hula Lake Park.
Hula painted frog, an amphibian considered to be extinct for decades, until it was rediscovered | Wikipedia, Mickey Samuni-Blank
According to the Torah, the Land of Israel was blessed with seven plant species: “A land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey,” (Deuteronomy 8:8), all of which are food crops that still grow in Israel today. Researchers think that the honey mentioned in this verse is probably not honey, but actually date molasses, referring to the date fruit that was used as a sweetener. While wheat, barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olives, and dates are also abundant elsewhere, other plants grow only here.
Let’s take for example the logo of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel – the Iris. Israel is home to 16 wild species of this beautiful flower, some of which are unique to this region. Among these are the Iris vartanii, named “Ruler Iris” in Hebrew after its straight leaves, that grow on mountains, especially on Mount Carmel; and the Coastal Iris (Iris atropurpurea), which used to be prevalent across the Israeli Coastal Plain, from Ashdod to Binyamina, and today can only be found in nature reserves like Poleg or Iris Hill in the sand dunes of Rishon LeZion-Ness Ziona. The Gilboa Iris (Iris haynei) has a narrower distribution and only grows on the Gilboa (look surprised) and in a small strip in Samaria. And Iris palestina, although bearing the Land of Israel’s name in Hebrew, is endemic to other countries in the region as well.
Iris vartanii, or “Ruler Iris” in Hebrew – a name derived from its decidedly straight leaves | Wikipedia, Gideon Pisanty
Several plant species are well-adapted to the dry and hot conditions of the Negev Desert and grow only there, such as the beautiful Desert Pancratium that decorates the sand with its white autumnal bloom, following which its leaves curl up to reduce surface area – and water loss through the leaves. Hormuzakia negevensis can only be found in a small area, spanning 1000-2000 square meters, in Yamin Plain of the Negev. The plant was discovered in 1994, by Israeli ecologist Avinoam Danin. Today, it is under serious extinction threat, with only a few dozen individuals remaining.
Other plants prefer central Israel. Tel-Aviv Garlic (Allium tel-avivense), for instance, grows on kurkar and hamra lands along the Coastal Plain and has a beautiful pink inflorescence.
Tel-Aviv Garlic grows along the Coastal Plain and is threatened by the accelerated construction in this region | Dr. Avishai Teicher
Rumex rothschildianus, a type of dock that grows in similar regions, was first identified by botanist and member of the espionage network NILI, Aaron Aaronsohn, who also discovered the mother of wheat. Aaronsohn named the plant species rothschildianus in honor of Baron de Rothschild.
Rumex rothschildianus, discovered by Aaron Aaronsohn. He gave it its Latin name, rothschildianus, in honor of his patron, Baron de Rothschild | Wikipedia, Reuven Karp
The accelerated development of Israel’s Coastal Plain, with its building and road construction, destroyed a large portion of the natural habitats of these plants (and many others). Rumex rothschildianus is critically endangered.
Aside from very rare cases, such as that of the human-loving Tristram’s starlings, human settlement, agriculture, and roads are detrimental to the habitats of both plants and animals. The authorities and environmental organization work in different ways to prevent future extinctions, such as expanding nature reserves, building bridges and animal passes over highways, monitoring the predator population, and fighting poaching, to name a few. Without such efforts, we will not be able to assure that the generations to come will also enjoy the impressive biological diversity of Israel. Without the birds, amphibians, and mammals, without the garlic, pancratium and irises, the “land of the gazelle” would lose a lot of its glory and splendor.
Translated by Elee Shimshoni