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Lake Skadar: Biodiversity At The Largest Lake In The Balkans
Lake Skadar Information and Facts
Lake Skadar, also known as Lake Scutari, Shkoder, or Shkodra, is the largest lake on the Balkan Peninsula. The lake lies on the border of Macedoni and Albania, and has one of the richest ecosystems on the continent.
Lake Skadar is located in the Western part of the Balkan Peninsula and was named after the city of Shkoder belonging to Northern Albania. It lies in the Zeta-Skadar Valley, belonging to the municipalities of Bar and partly Podgorica. Two-thirds of the lake belongs to Montenegro, whilst the rest is Albanian territory. The Montenegrin part of the lake and its surroundings has been part of a national park since 1983, whilst the Albanian area is a Managed Nature Reserve. As of 1996 Skadar was included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. In late 2011 the lake area was formally nominated for a UNESCO heritage status.
Skadar lies in a crypto depression, which means that some parts of the lake’s bottom are below sea level. These areas are called sublacustrine springs, also known as “eyes”. The deepest such eye is the Radus, which is 60 meters deep and is exceptionally rich in fish.
The southern and southwestern shores of the lake are generally rocky, barren and steep with bays with sublacustrine springs. The northern part is a large inundated area, with fluctuating water levels. Some islands can be found on the lake’s southwestern part, such as Beska Island, with two churches, and Grmozur Island, which used to be a prison fortress.
Lake Skadar is a young ancient lake. Its basin is of tectonic origin, created after the complex folding and faulting within the northeastern wing of the high karst zone of Montenegro in the Cenozoic period. It is the result of the sinking blocks in the Neogene and Paleogen periods. During the Miocene and Pliocene era local marine conditions prevailed in the Zeta Plain, which eventually sunk in the early Upper Miocene period. During the Pliocene the sea inundated the plain up to Podgorica.
Scientists believe that the sea must have destroyed the freshwater populations on the plain and the Lake Skadar area. The connection between the lake and the sea was broken off during the younger Pliocene. With the Tarabos and Rumija mountains rising higher out of the sea, the area slowly separated from it and Lake Skadar was born.
The lake’s water levels vary depending on the season between 4.7 meters to 9.8 meters above sea level. Lake Skadar extends in the Northwest-Southeast direction and it is mostly fed by the Moraca River, representing 62% of its waters, which brings in sediments that affect the lake’s clarity. Some of the other larger inflows of Skadar are the Karatuna, Bazagurska, Crnojevic and Orhavstica rivers. A significant amount also comes from rivers such as Mala Moraca, Tara, Plavnica and Zetica pouring into the Zeta Valley. A number of fresh water sources can also be found at the lake bottom.
The Bojana River drains the lake, connecting it to the Adriatic Sea, while forming an international border on the lower half of its length. The Drin River provides a link to Ohrid Lake.
Phosphorous concentrations in the lake are generally low. The water of the lake is completely changed 2-2 and a half times every year. Nearby Rijeka Crnojevica there is a well-preserved shipwreck called the Skanderbeg Steamboat, located 11 meters deep, which was sank by the partisans during World War II in 1942.
Local climate is sub-Mediterranean with mild, rainy winters and dry hot summers. Average January lake temperature is generally 7.3OC. During the summer water temperatures are slightly above 27OC, whilst the air temperature can get above 40OC. The average annual temperature in the area is 14.9 degrees Celsius.
Flora and Fauna
The Skadar Lake system is a famous hotspot of freshwater biodiversity and houses a highly diverse mollusk fauna, along with its exceptional richness of ornithofauna and ichtyofauna. It is a true oasis for nature-lovers, and especially bird-watchers. The swamps on the shores create a series of complex habitats which enable high diversity of plant and animal life. The surrounding dramatic karst mountains with their rocky shores and wetlands also enable the existence of abundant wildlife. Numerous medicinal herbs as well as plenty of orchid species can be found along the lake’s coast.
The lake area is home to one of the largest bird populations on the continent, with more than 270 species. Lake Skadar has one of the most important habitats for European swamp birds, coming in second after the Danube Delta. There are three main bird habitats called Panceva Oka, Crnizar and Manastirska Tapija. A lot of rare birds can be found here, such as the southern Dalmatian pelican, along with pygmy cormorants, storks, herons, egrets, ibises and falcons. The surrounding mountains on the lake shores are home to wild tortoises, lizards, amphibians, snakes, wild boars and wolves.
Lake Skadar is abundant in fish, especially carp, bleak, eel and mullet. Out of the 48 fish species which live in the lake 15 are endemic. The bleak is an indigenous species and lives exclusively in Skadar. 31% of the lake’s freshwater snails are endemic at the scale of Lake Skadar, while 38% of the total freshwater gastropod fauna are endemic at the scale of Lake Skadar basin. The index of freshwater gastropod endemism is 0.478, which is a relatively high value, meaning that Lake Skadar exceeds other famous lakes such as Lake Malawi or Lake Titicaca regarding this matter. Out of 117 amphipod species in the lake’s watershed, 10 of them are endemic.
Because these endemic species in the lake system live together with increasing human pressure, Lake Skadar has become vulnerable, mainly because of eutrophication, water pollution, and sand and gravel exploitation activities in the lake basin. Researches show that the lake is on a betamesosaprobic level of saprobity, which means that it is moderately polluted with organic compounds, effects of human-induced changes. These changes are especially visible in the “eyes”, the sublacustrine springs. Eutrophication and water supply are the most serious threats.
The lake area used to be part of the ancient Slav kingdom of Zeta. The region became a battlefield for nearly 5 centuries after the Turkish invasion in the 13th century. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Turks were expelled from the region, the 1875 Congress of Berlin approved the borders of the newly independent Montenegro. Skadar town, where the lake’s name originates from, was once the capital of Zeta, and after the treaty was incorporated into Albania. Several smaller Albanian towns like Ostros and Donji-Murici became part of Montenegro, but still kept their strong Albanian character even today.
During the late-19th and early-20th century the royal seat was located in Cetinje. In World War II Virpazar served as a scene for the first partisan uprising of Montenegro.
Traveling to Lake Skadar
The lake is a haven for everyone in search for outdoor adventures. Whether one fancies hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming, caving or boating, Lake Skadar is the perfect place to do all of these things, together with cultural and culinary events, wine-tasting and bird-watching.
Hiking is best among the medieval hill villages, the waterfalls and springs of Walnut Valley and around the numerous caves that can be found in the area. For those in search of relaxation, numerous beaches await tourists. Caving is best in the Obod, Grbocica, Bobosuta and Ispila regions. The beaches of the southern coast are mainly pebbly, such as Lucice in Godinska Bay, the beach beneath the Besa village and the beach at Pristan Bay. Fishing is also possible on Lake Skadar, but only after purchasing fishing permits, which can be bought at local visitor centers.
Monasteries represent the most valuable cultural heritage in the area. Many can be found along the coast, but the oldest monastery is the Starceva Gorica, constructed in the 14th century. The lake’s southern shores are home to some of the best wineries in Montenegro. Virpazar and Rijeka Crnojevica are famous for their restaurants serving local specialties.