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Wildlife

Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park is a lush forestland brimming with lakes and streams that fosters a wealth of wildlife. Learn more about the region's natural inhabitants, many of whom have found a refuge that is increasingly rare across urbanized Europe.

A brown bear BROWN BEAR (Ursus arctos)

Brown bears once roamed across much of Northern and Central Europe. Today, however, their numbers are small and mainly confined to mountain woodlands, such as Plitvice -- which has one of the densest brown bear populations in Europe. The bears have found an ideal home in the park's thick forests, where they may find shelter in which to sleep during the day. The bears generally emerge and forage for food in the morning and evening. Brown bears will eat almost anything, from mice and squirrels to roots, insects, mushrooms, and fruit. Berries and honey are high-calorie favorites that help them store fat for each winter's hibernation. For their extended seasonal nap, the bears often dig their own dens under a sheltered slope and make a bed with dry vegetation. In the wild, brown bears have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years.

A lynx LYNX (Lynx lynx)

Since three pairs of lynx were reintroduced to neighboring Slovenia in the early seventies, the lynx has moved southeast and returned to Croatia. Hunting, trapping, and destruction of the animal's environment all contributed to the animal's disappearance in the 19th century. Today, there are sixty individuals that can be found in Plitvice. The lynx is a shy and solitary cat that spends much of its time in pursuit of food. A skillful hunter, the lynx employs a keen sense of hearing, stealth, and quick bursts of speed to surprise its prey, usually small mammals and ground-dwelling birds. When their natural food supply is in short order, however, the lynx may resort to hunting domestic stock animals -- a habit that has caused some friction with the local human populations, particularly in the areas where the animal has recently been reintroduced.

Video GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

The dense woodland mountains of Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is also known as "Lika," or "Land of the Wolf," offers an ideal home for gray wolves. But wolves are adaptable creatures that may be found in a wide variety of environments, from the arctic tundra to prairies and forests. Wolves are highly social animals that live in packs of 5 to 10 individuals. Each pack has a hierarchical power structure, and is led by an alpha pair. The alpha male is the most dominant member of the pack, followed by the alpha female. As a pack, wolves work together to bring down large prey such as deer or boars -- in which case, they generally hunt for weak or older members of a herd. Wolves may also subsist on smaller prey like mice and voles. In Plitvice, where the deer population has largely been depleted, these smaller meals are especially important.

Video OLM (Proteus anguinus)

If ever the word "strange" were an appropriate moniker for one of nature's creatures, it is in the case of the olm -- a rare cave salamander that has no eyes or pigmentation. Found only in the limestone waters of Balkan caves, the olm employs a heightened sense of smell and a knack for tuning into electrical currents to hunt for bacteria, protozoa, and fish. The olm has adjusted to the cave's sparse nutritional offerings, and can go for years without eating. The olm has small fins on its head that are gills, as well as lungs, and the ability to breath air through its skin. Centuries ago, the first humans to come across this bizarre species concluded it was the immature offspring of a dragon.

A European pond turtle EUROPEAN POND TURTLE (Emys orbicularis)

The European pond turtle is found primarily in the fresh water ponds and streams across Southern Europe and as far east as Turkey and Iran. Though its distribution is wide, the turtle is becoming increasingly endangered as its environment grows scarce. Changing agricultural practices, for instance, have resulted in the replacement of earthen drainage ditches with concrete-walled basins. The turtle, which may vary in appearance slightly from region to region, can generally be identified by the unique yellow speckles that dot its skin.

The turtle's eggs, which incubate by the light of the sun, are equipped with a special adaptation that help the unborn young survive cool summers, allowing them to remain in their shells over the winter -- until the warm rays of the spring sun might instigate the rest of their development.

Black stork chicks BLACK STORK (Ciconia nigra)

Though its cousin, the white stork, lives in the countryside, the black stork prefers the shelter of an open forest -- where it mates for life and takes up residence in the crux of a large tree (usually an oak or a beech). There, on the bough of a strong and sizable branch, a pair of storks will construct a nest of about five feet in diameter. On certain occasions, the storks will reuse an abandoned raptor nest. Regardless, the nest may be reoccupied year after year, when the storks return from their winters in Western Africa. For their meals, the storks troll local waters for fish, bacteria, insects, shellfish, and small reptiles. Until recently, the black stork had virtually vanished from Western Europe, existing primarily in Eastern Europe. Over the last century, however, several populations have returned to certain isolated regions of Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Denmark.

URAL OWL (Strix uralensis)

The Ural owl is a common species that may be found in coniferous or mixed forests in Asia, across Northern and Central Europe -- such as Plitvice. As a member of the genus Strix, the Ural owl is part of the wood owl family, related to the more diminutive great grey owl and the even smaller tawny owl. All three owls have concave, dish-like faces that function to direct sound to their ear holes. The Ural owl is a private and territorial bird that uses its acute sense of hearing to scope out the local terrain for small prey, from small rodents to squirrels and hares. Well-equipped to face the frigid winter weather of its northern forested home with a thick coat of feathers, the Ural owl also has a distinctive long tail that hangs down when it flies.

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