The alien landscape and rare animals of the Socotra islands

Let’s take a look at one of the most unique places in the world — the Socotra Archipelago in Yemen! An archipelago is a group of islands, and these remote ones are home to around 800 rare species of animals and plants —including some amazing-looking trees — about a third of which can only be seen here. Because of this, Socotra was named a World Heritage Site. Read on to learn more about these islands!

Where is it?

Map copyright: peterhermesfurian / 123RF Stock Photo

The four islands and two islets that make up the archipelago are part of the country of Yemen, but they’re on their own in the northwest part of the Indian Ocean, between Africa and the Middle East. There are only about 40,000 people living here and, because it’s a nature reserve, most of the people who visit come for eco-tourism (that’s when people travel somewhere to observe nature and wildlife).

So Many Weird Trees!

Photo credit: fluor_doublet on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Plants on the islands took on some strange shapes to adapt to the fact that the climate is so hot and dry. The most famous of Socotra’s plants is probably the dragon’s blood tree. It sounds scary, but it’s the dark red sap that gives these trees their name. The sap has been used for centuries in medicines and as dyes. The trees themselves have large round branches shaped like umbrellas. 

Photo credit: Rod Waddington on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

The dragon’s blood trees aren’t the only odd trees on the islands. There’s also the desert rose, also called a bottle tree, which stores water in its huge trunk and hardly grows any leaves or flowers.

Bees on a Boswellia tree branch. Frankincense is made from the resin under the bark of the tree. (Photo credit: dinesh_valke on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA)

Then there’s frankincense and myrrh. You may have heard these words in Christmas songs, but not known what they meant. Frankincense is an oil made from the resin of the Boswellia tree, while myrrh oil comes from myrrh trees. The oils and perfumes made from them were once considered very valuable, and the trees are still rare. Both kinds of trees grow on the Socotra islands.


An Egyptian vulture. (Photo credit: Stefan Geens on / CC BY-NC-SA)

It’s not just the plant life — Socotra is home to some interesting animals as well. There are 192 different bird species that either live on the islands or visit during migration. The only mammals native to Socotra are bats, which live in the many rocky caves.

Ghost crab. (Photo credit: Stefan Geens on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA)

But there are lots of different kinds of reptiles on the islands, including the Socotran chameleon and several types of skinks, which are lizards that look more like snakes, but with very small limbs. The marine life is also very diverse, with 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp, over 700 species of coastal fish as well as 253 species of reef-building corals.

Gathering frankincense in Socotra. (Photo credit: quelea1945 on / CC BY-NC-SA)

Socotra isn’t just home to plants and animals — people have been living on the islands for thousands of years. They have their own Socrotri language. The islands have been part of trade routes for centuries, with artifacts from sailors having been found dating back to the 1st century BC. But because it’s so far away from everything else, the archipelago has largely been left to itself, which is a good thing for the unique wildlife that lives there.

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