Europe: The continent transformed by humanity
It’s the second-smallest continent on Earth, but home to more than 700 million people, including almost all of you reading this article. We are, of course, talking about Europe.
From the tiny island nation of Malta in the south, to the freezing Scandinavian nations up north, over 40 countries make up the European continent. It is considered by many as the birthplace of western civilisation and has seen dramatic change since the arrival of humans.
Europe is the focus of the fifth episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet. We take a look at some of its unique wildlife and natural attractions.
Europe’s howling wolves
Wolves, notorious for their spine-tingling howls in scary films, once existed throughout much of Europe, but were hunted out of many countries over a century ago. However, over the past 50 years, they have made a comeback. Their numbers in the continent are increasing, and around 17,000 of them can be found in many countries across Europe.
Wolves are highly social animals. They hunt and live in packs of around six to 10 individuals and are known to walk long distances, often around 19 km (12 mi) in a single day. European wolves feed on a diet of hoofed mammals such as deer. They also feed on livestock, especially in some parts of southern Europe where they can often depend on domestic animals to survive. This has caused a fractured relationship between them and humans in some areas.
Wolves hunt in packs and don’t tend to eat every day. Instead, they feast on a large meal every few days and can gobble up 9 kg (20 lb) of meat in a single meal. That’s the same as a human eating 100 hamburgers.
The fly that may not live very long
What do you call an animal that lives for only a short time but has been around for a very long time? Well… a mayfly. Mayflies live each day like it’s their last and that’s because it kind of is. Mayflies live as winged animals for roughly 24 hours and, in that time, their only purpose of survival is to reproduce and once they do, they die. Some species can produce over 10,000 eggs, which usually hatch the following year.
For an animal that is not alive for very long, they have been on the planet for a very long time - some 350 million years, in fact. They existed before dinosaurs came into existence and even survived the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.
The rare furry feline
Apart from being wild cats, what do lions, tigers, jaguars and cheetahs have in common? Well, none of them can be found roaming wild in Europe. You may, however, find one of the rarest cat species in the world, the Iberian lynx.
The Iberian lynx population is steadily increasing from less than 200 in 2002, but they are still at risk of becoming extinct. A decreasing food base, habitat loss, illegal hunting and lynxes struck by cars have all played a part in its shrinking population.
Iberian lynxes mostly feed on a diet of wild rabbits, but will also eat ducks, small deer and partridges, if rabbits are sparse. With eyesight that is up to six times that of humans in dark conditions, the Iberian lynx is an effective stealthy hunter.
Dancing lights in the sky
Can you imagine looking up to the night sky and seeing something other than: darkness, stars, the Moon and maybe a plane passing by? In some areas, you can see something very special in the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.
Beautiful and bright, colourful lights fill the sky in some areas of the northern hemisphere. They are created when trillions of electrically charged gas particles from the Sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Different gasses give off different colours, but the most popular is a pale yellowish-green colour. Norway is a popular spot to see the lights, with many tourists flocking there to see the spectacle each year.
Europe’s dragon-like salamander
Slovenia’s Karst region in central Europe is home to over 12,000 caves alone. These caves are home to remarkable little salamanders that can go quite a while without eating.
In fact, this small amphibian can go 10 years without eating. Its name? The olm. Its habitat is not easily accessible and so it’s difficult for scientists to estimate their population. However, because the small salamander is restricted to an area of less than 2,000 sq km (772 sq mi), it has been labelled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘vulnerable’. In a 2012 interview with the Telegraph, David Attenborough said that the olm is one of the animals he would like to save from extinction.
Hundreds of years ago, when floods occasionally washed the creatures from the region's caves, they were regarded suspiciously as baby dragons. The dragon-like olms live in total darkness but that won’t worry them too much as they are completely blind as adults. They have eyes for the first four months of life before they start to return to their less-developed state. They can live for up to 10 years without food by reducing their metabolic activity and reabsorbing their own tissues. A handy trait if food is scarce.