It is often said that there is never a dull moment in the life of a field biologist. For our team, this was certainly true as we trudged through the Ukrainian steppe, dodging unexpected rainstorms and stumbling upon hidden reptile habitats in unlikely places. But if you persevere, close encounters with elusive wildlife or unexpected discoveries in remote locations provide ample reward for many hours spent in challenging conditions.

Left: photographing a lizard during our fieldwork. Right: a steppe-runner Eremias arguta in Lebedivka, territory of Ukrainian Bessarabia. Photos: Oleksandra Oskyrko and Roman Lysenko.

Left: photographing a lizard during our fieldwork. Right: a steppe-runner Eremias arguta in Lebedivka, territory of Ukrainian Bessarabia. Photos: Oleksandra Oskyrko and Roman Lysenko.

The steppes of Ukraine were once a sea of grass on rolling, treeless plains, where wildlife thrived and nomadic peoples grazed their livestock herds with little impact on the natural ecosystem. However, a major transformation began in the 18th century, after the region was annexed to the Russian Empire and migrants from central and northern Russia and Ukraine, as well as from central Europe, settled in the area. Since then, the steppes have been transformed into a major agricultural region. By the dawn of the 20th century, the former steppe landscape had almost disappeared, with the exception of a few remnants that are protected in nature reserves.

Our research focused on reptiles in the Odesa Oblast in south-western Ukraine, located along the coast of the Black Sea. The province forms part of the Azov–Black Sea eco-corridor in the steppe vegetation zone, and is an important area for biodiversity conservation not only in Ukraine but in the whole of Europe. Reptiles are often difficult to spot and may not be as charismatic or generally admired as furry mammals or colourful birds, but they play a crucial role in the steppe ecosystem: lizards and snakes, for example, keep insect and rodent populations in check, and they provide food for larger predators such as birds of prey. Like so many other taxa, however, reptiles are facing severe threats, including habitat loss, climate change and other human-induced pressures. The first step to address these threats and devise effective conservation strategies is to review baseline data on where reptiles occur and how they utilize their habitats. However, records of herpetofauna from Odesa Oblast are limited compared to other parts of the country, and much of this baseline information is not available. Faced with this knowledge gap, our research team rolled up their sleeves, grabbed their gear and set out to uncover as much as we could about the snakes, lizards and turtles that occur in the remaining steppe habitats in Odesa Oblast. Our primary goal was to map the distribution of reptiles in the province, providing vital data for conservationists to protect these creatures and the habitats they call home—a crucial step towards safeguarding Ukraine’s biodiversity, preserving our natural heritage, and ensuring a healthier environment for generations to come.

Habitats of native Ukrainian reptiles. Left: Kuialnyk Estuary, territory of Ukrainian Bessarabia, Odessa Oblast. Top right: habitat of snakes and lizards, Tuzly Lagoons National Nature Park. Bottom right: habitat of the sand lizard Lacerta agilis near the village of Kurortne. Photos: Viktor Yepishin (left) and Oleksandra Oskyrko (top right and bottom right).

Habitats of native Ukrainian reptiles. Left: Kuialnyk Estuary, territory of Ukrainian Bessarabia, Odessa Oblast. Top right: habitat of snakes and lizards, Tuzly Lagoons National Nature Park. Bottom right: habitat of the sand lizard Lacerta agilis near the village of Kurortne. Photos: Viktor Yepishin (left) and Oleksandra Oskyrko (top right and bottom right).

To supplement the findings from our own fieldwork, we also collected information from the published literature, public databases and museum collections, compiling 662 reptile records in total. Overall, we found 14 native reptile species in Odesa Oblast, including eight species of snakes, one species of freshwater turtle and five lizard species, one of which (the European green lizard) has a beautiful bright blue throat that—this is the species we came across most often. Field surveys were unable to confirm the occurrence of five of the 14 known species (four snakes and one lizard species). Among the latter is the eastern slowworm Anguis colchica, which despite its name is not a worm (although they do move rather slowly!), but a legless lizard with a snake-like appearance. Although we were disappointed not to discover any new species in the oblast, we did locate some previously unknown habitats for several of our finds. Most of these were in Ukrainian Bessarabia and near the city of Odesa, which was the working base for the majority of our field trips. We found numerous new records of the steppe-runner Eremias arguta, a species limited to the steppe and forest–steppe zone; these habitats continue to decline each year because of ongoing construction and agricultural development, which makes these new records crucially important.

Concerningly, we also confirmed the presence of four introduced, non-native species in the area—the highest number of introduced reptile species in any oblast in Ukraine. These species could be a threat to native biodiversity, so it is important that their numbers and distribution are monitored. One of these alien species is Bogdanov’s thin-toed gecko Tenuidactylus bogdanovi, which is native to Central Asia and not found anywhere else in Europe; it was probably imported into Ukraine with cargo shipments in the early 2000s—the first record was recorded in 2011 and the population has increased significantly since then.

An introduced species of wall lizard Podarcis muralis in Reni, Odesa region of Ukraine. Photo: Roman Lysenko.

An introduced species of wall lizard Podarcis muralis in Reni, Odesa region of Ukraine. Photo: Roman Lysenko.

Our study wasn’t without its difficulties, but there were also some incredibly uplifting moments along the way. Despite the obstacles posed by rugged terrain and unpredictable weather, the camaraderie among our team kept spirits high, and witnessing the persistence of Ukraine’s native reptile species in the face of a multitude of threats was a constant reminder of nature’s resilience—a morale booster we all needed amidst the challenges of conservation fieldwork.

Some of the team during the field expeditions, wearing t-shirts we made to raise awareness of reptile conservation in Ukraine. Our project was supported by The Rufford Foundation. Photo: Oleksandr Haidash.

Some of the team during the field expeditions, wearing t-shirts we made to raise awareness of reptile conservation in Ukraine. Our project was supported by The Rufford Foundation. Photo: Oleksandr Haidash.

One aspect of our research that I wish we could have delved into more deeply is the impact of human activities on reptile populations in Odesa Oblast. We touched on the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation, but there is so much more that is yet unknown. Urbanization, agriculture, tourism and military activities all play a role in shaping the landscape and altering wildlife habitats. Understanding the nuances of these interactions could guide us in conserving reptiles faced with growing human pressures—a piece of the puzzle that we want to explore further in future studies.

With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine affecting ecosystems across the country, our study sheds some light on how warfare may affect biodiversity in the future. Having begun our fieldwork before the start of the hostilities, we have data on the natural state of many habitats in the area. This information will be important for assessing biodiversity losses that have occurred during the war, and for beginning post-war ecosystem restoration. As the impacts of war add to the threats faced by Ukrainian reptiles, it is now more important than ever to keep an eye on our scaly friends and give them a chance to thrive.

Some of the native reptile species in Odesa Oblast, Ukraine. (a) Grass snake Natrix natrix, Lake Yalpuh. (b) European pond turtle Emys orbicularis, Lower Dniester National Nature Park. (c) Steppe-runner Eremias arguta, Budak spit. (d) Juvenile sand lizard Lacerta agilis, Myrne. (e) European green lizard Lacerta viridis, Reni. (f) Balkan wall lizard Podarcis tauricus, Lake Yalpuh. Photos: O. Oskyrko (a,b,d,f) and R. Lysenko (c,e).

Some of the native reptile species in Odesa Oblast, Ukraine. (a) Grass snake Natrix natrix, Lake Yalpuh. (b) European pond turtle Emys orbicularis, Lower Dniester National Nature Park. (c) Steppe-runner Eremias arguta, Budak spit. (d) Juvenile sand lizard Lacerta agilis, Myrne. (e) European green lizard Lacerta viridis, Reni. (f) Balkan wall lizard Podarcis tauricus, Lake Yalpuh. Photos: O. Oskyrko (a,b,d,f) and R. Lysenko (c,e).

The article ‘Reptiles and their conservation in south-west Ukraine’ is available open access in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.



Oleksandra Oskyrko is a passionate young scientist and herpetologist from Ukraine. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the Key Lab of Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology, Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China. She has a keen interest in ecology and conservation biology and specializes in various topics including ecophysiology, phylogenetics, and conservation of amphibians and reptiles. Biodiversity assessments and the study of alien reptile species and the threats they pose to native species form part of her work.