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AUTHOR:  Prof. dr. sc. Duro Huber

WORLD OF ANIMALS AT PLITVICE LAKES

As in only few places in the world, in the Plitvice Lakes National Park area today live all animal species that are autochtonic here. Natural characteristics of the area have remained sufficiently preserved from man's influence, so that animal living space of all taxonomic and ecological categories are inhabited by the population of species which had been living here even before man spread all over the Planet. For animals it is particularly important that the Plitvice Lakes National Park is not only preserved and protected island of nature in urbanized environment, but that surrounding areas are as well their uninterrupted space, which makes it possible for their needs to be satisfied and for genes to circulate permanently. The animal world of any area is determined as a rule by its vegetation and geographical characteristics. Geographical latitude, the difference between the lowest and highest altitude above the sea level, the distance from the sea and prevailing winds are the main characteristics that vegetation cover depends on.

All animals in a food chain are consumers, and directly or indirectly - if carnivorous - they depend on type and quantity of producers, or rather on vegetable cover. After damp tropical forests, the kind of continental ecosystem that we have at the Plitvice Lakes belongs to those of biggest biological diversity. Visitors should distinguish variety of living spaces that make it possible for animal world to be that diverse. Some of the species have been specializing for certain living spaces, while the others need more various living areas to satisfy their life needs. The richest one is the "invisible" world of microorganisms, unicellular animals, small multicellular invertebrates which are decomposing the dead organic substance, but they are also gulping down plants as well as each other. Many rypes also live as parasites on bigger animals, completing thereby ecological balance in undisturbed ecosystem, keeping the optimal values of populations.

Among mammals, species belonging to small mammals are majority in which rodents prevail. We are describing here common and big mammals.

Hare (Lepus europaeus), Common or European hare lives on dry grasslands, fields and underbrushes. Adult hare could be of about 5 kg of weight, absolute vegetarian which is chopping up various plants, herbaceous vegetables and trees, using teeth called "glodnjaci". A careful visitor can easilly find hard small balls of their faeces. They live separately, are active mostly at night , while resting in bushes, grass or in furrow of arable land.

Wolf (Canis lupus), systematically exterminated as "pest" has disappeared from all areas where permanent human population is present. A part of Dinaric range population live in Croatia. The period in which wolves were exterminated is a history of civilized world, and that is why their number and spread are increasing again. That gives a special value to the fact that autochtunic wolf has survived in Croatia, and that here, beside wolves live brown bear and lynx, which means all the biggest mammals of Europe. Already in 1894, wolf used to live all over our country, and probably from then until 30 years ago, wolf population was made of between 600 and 1000 individuals. Nowadays, wolf is pushed to mountain areas of Gorski kotar and Lika, counting about 50 individuals. They are considered jeopardized species and therefore have been under the Law protection since 1995.

Male wolves in Croatia have in average 35 kg of weight, while females have 29. Their most common natural prey are deer, roe deer, wild boars and small mammals, and dogs and sheep out of domestic animals. Wolves live in small packs which are in fact family groups made of parents and their youngs from one to two last litters. Parents, alpha male and female are the only reproduction pair in the community. Every pack of wolves has its own territury, permanently marked by urine and defended from other pack in vasions. The Plitvice Lakes National Park is probably being shared by several packs of wolves, but at the same time, their territory is stretching far beyond the Park borders. Same as dogs, they could live up to 15 years, but in reality they end up much earlier.

Fox (Canis vulpes) is a species that successfully lives close to man. They are spread in the forests, arable flatland and around the settlements. Foxes could grow up till they reach between 6 and 10 kg. Foxes of Plitvice are as a rule quite big, and visitors might be lucky enough to see them while hunting small mammals at the edge of a meadow. Except small mammals, they consume birds and small domestic animals, carrion, insects and vegetable fruits. They are most active at night.

Skunk (Mustela putorius) comes close to man's settlement, particularly in winter, as the man's presence increases skunk's survival in winter and makes it possible to retain their relatively high number. They are spread all over Croatia. The skunk belongs to a family of martens, and could grow up to 1.2 kg. They defend themselves by throwing out a smelly content of glands located next to anal sphincter. They live in the fields, meadows, next to marshes while for shelter they look either in rabbit holes or dig them alone. They are mostly active at night, eating small mammaIs at that time as well as amphibia, reptiles, fishes, bird's eggs and young birds, invertebrates and vegetable fruits.

Weasel (Mustela nivalis) uses all available living spaces including closeness of man's settlements. A weasel is our smallest beast from martens family which has only 0.1 kg of weight, lives in the field and forests, and is looking for shelter in holes, between rocks or in the subterranean passages. All small animals are considered to be food, thus making weasel useful regulator of their populations.

Otter (Lutra lutra) is autochtonic all over Europe, but in many regions is either exterminated or decreased in number. Man used to kill this species for fur and as pest at fish ponds. Today, their living area is disturbed by waterstream regulation, disappearance of fishes and by pollution. Otter has been permanently protected since 1972. We can expect this species at the Plitvice Lakes along quiet sections of the Black and White rivers as well as along Proscansko Lake. Individual otter could grow up to 15 kg. A body shape, fur and legs with skin between toes are adjusted for life beside water, or rather for swimming and diving. They are looking for shelter in subterranean passages between tree roots and in coastal vegetation. They go away from water only to go across to another watery area, they eat fish, crabs and amphibia while on seldom occasions go after mammals and birds.

Meles (Meles meles) lives in deep subterranean shelters. Night activity and big choice of food have made it possible for meles to survive in people's closeness. Meles is our biggest beast of martens family and has up to 17 kg, lives in forests close to meadows and fields, and looks for shelter in dug badger's hole up to 5 m deep. There are several of such holes at the Plitvice Lakes which are very interesting when found, because of their dimensions, numerous holes and amount of material that was dug out. Mele's food are invertebrates and small vertebrates that meles is capable of catching, as well as carrion, cereals, fruits and roots.

Pine marten (Martes martes) is mostly staying in forests, but has lost a part of the living space due to decreasement of forestry areas. This species is present all over Croatia, but is most frequent in forests of the mountain areas. Marten's neck and chest are covered by yellow coloured hair, while the top of the snout is black, it is active day and night in forestry areas, pine marten is a good climber and jumper and stays in the holes. Their food are small mammals (of ten squirrels), birds (young ones and eggs), insects, but various vegetable fruits too.

Stone marten (Martes foina) usually stays close to man's settlements where it uses shelter and food provided by that living space. This species is present all over Croatia, but is more frequent on stony ground and beside store houses, it has neck and chest covered by hair of white colour while the top of the snout is rosy, stone marten is active at night when close to man, catches rats, mice, but also eats poultry and their eggs.

Lynx (Lynx lynx), Autochtonic European lynx has survived only in Carpathians, and in the part of Dinaric ranges, but in the last few decades has successfully returned to Switzerland as well as to the middle section of Dinaric range, which means to Croatia. Autochtonic lynx was exterminated from Croatia in 1903, and the last remains of Dinaric lynx were surviving in Macedonia and probably in Albania. After 1973, when three pairs of lynx were brought from Slovakian Carpathians and released in Slovenia, they spread till 1978 over Croatia too, and after that to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the beginning of 1980, they were seen at the Plitvice Lakes for the first time, meaning that that reintroduction was the most successful out of all which have taken place in Europe. Today, lynx has a status of a rare animal in Croatia, and is protected by Law on Nature Protection from 1982. It is estimated that about 60 lynx pairs are living today in Croatia, that is, in Gorski Kotar, Lika, Hrvatsko primorje and Istra.

Adult lynx has between 18 and 30 kg, and same as other cats, has sharp claws. This species lives in all vegetable comunity forests. Depending on density of prey, every lynx needs an area of 10 to 40 km2. Lynx climbs and jumps well, can be active by day and at night, and goes after plunder sneaking. Its food are mammals of all sizes, from mouse to deer and roe deer, but it also catches small birds and domestic animals.

Wild cat (Felis silvestris) is spread all over Croatia, but south of the Sava river is rare and there is under legal protection. A wild cat can grow up to 15 kg. Beside the fact that it is bigger than domestic cat, this one has noticeably thicker tail with stripes and its top is of dark hair. It lives in forest and stays in cavities, caves and holes of rabbit, meles or fox. Its food are all small vertebrates, but it can also slaughter a fawn.

Wild boar (Sus scrofa) has kept relatively large population in the area close to man due to hiding in bushes, night activities, successful reproduction and eating all kinds of food. Male boar can grow up to 200 kg. Although they are of the same kind as domestic pigs, they differ in body shape, dark and bristly fur and in big tusks possessed by a male. They like damp, bushy forests and regularly go into slushes at the hills. They look for food mostly at night by digging in the ground, while they eat almost everything: acorn fruit, beechmast, roots, mushrooms, small vertebrates and invertebrates and carrion. Dug up meadows are one of the most noticeable traces of wild animals at Plitvice. They live in herds.

Deer (Cervus elaphus) lives in all forestry areas , from flatland forests along the rivers to the mountains. It is estimated that 11000 of them are living in Croatia, and the largest number is in Posavina, Podravina and in Gorski kotar. They have been spreading towards Lika and Istra in the last two decades. There were almost none of them at Plitvice 20 years ago, but now, few of them are showing up there. Hind can grow up to 130 kg, while a male deer might exceed 200 kg of weight. Adult deer has horns which branch off in more than 10 smaller ones, used while fighting the other males in pairing season. Conveniant living conditions for them are in deciduous forests with belonging grasslands. Except the grass, their food is acorn fruit, beechmast and other fruits as well as leaves and tree bark. Females and their youngs live in herds.

Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) is the most frequent European ruminant and a valuable member of autochtonic fauna. It is easy to be found in continental Croatia, while it is quite rare in the coastal zone. Out of all big mammals, a visitor has the best chances to see roe deer. If silently coming close to any meadow either early in the motning or at dusk, they can be seen while pasturing. Roe deer can have between 15 and 30 kg.

Brown bear (Ursus arctos), European brown bear is a subgroup of brown bear which was once spread all over entire Euro - Asia and North America. In Croatia, there is a population living in part of Dinaric massif, and after the Carpathians, this one is the second in Europe in number Brown bear is almost exterminated from Westem Europe, remaining populations are quite small, mutually separated and in process of disappearance. Bears in Croatia together with those in neighboring Slovenia, are representing genetically completely similar and stable population in the most western section, which is the last possible source for salvation of bears in Europe. All that puts brown bear on the very top of natural inheritance value in Croatia.

Brown bears are living in Croatia on about 10 000 km? of mostly forestry areas in Dinaric ranges - in Gorski kotar, Lika, or rather from Snjeznik and Risnjak across the Plitvice Lakes area to Velika Kapela, Mala Kapela, Pljesivica and Velebit. The estimated population counts about 400 samples which fits the capacity of the area. Bear is a rare species in Croatia today. Outside of protected area they are available for hunting. About 40 bears a year suffer from both hunting and other causes of death. Limited size of available living areas and large space necessary for every single bear are making impossible for bear population to grow further and that is what makes them to be rare species.

Bears are the biggest continental carnivotous animals. In Croatia, bear females have in average 100 kg, and bear males 150, but some of them could go over 300 kg. Although true carnivorous animals by their body construction, 95% of their needs for food are satisfied by vegetable food, a share of animal proteins is mostly taken from invertebrates and big animal carrion. Among vegetable food during spring and summer herbaceous plants and grasses are dominating, joined by some soft fruits in summer and beechmast is autumn as the main food for collecting of underskin fat for winter reserve.

Bear spends winter in lair, but active individuals could be found during the entire winter. The longest rest is that of gravid females which are delivering 1 to 4 blind youngsters of 1/3 kg in January. Small bears are eating exceptionaly nutritious mothers milk with over 20% of fat, and by April they are sufficiently grown up to leave the lair and to follow their mother while looking for food. They spend with mother the entire first year of life as well as the next winter in lair. They separate at the age of about 1.5 years and could live in nature as long as 10 to 20 years, but the average age of bear population meant for hunting is about 5 years. They need a large space for living, because male bears are wandering around on more than 200 km?, arid females on more than 100 km?.

Preservation of living area and natural nutrition are important conditions for permanent stay of brown bears. Brown bear is certainly the most attractive species in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, and salutes you from the Park symbol. Still, it is not likely for you to see the bears. It is easier to find some of the traces which they have left behind.