‘Elusive and cryptic’ lizard could be Australia’s first reptile declared extinct | The threatened species
A newly reclassified species of lizard native to the now cobbled areas of suburban Melbourne could become the first reptile from mainland Australia to be declared extinct.
A taxonomic study of the prairie earless dragon, published this week in the Royal Society Open Science journaldiscovered that species classified as Tympanocryptis pinguicolla was actually four species – one of which has not been seen since 1969.
The extinct lizard made its home in the grasslands of what are now St Kilda and Kew, and on islands in the River Yarra. It was last spotted 50 years ago in grasslands between Melbourne and Geelong, most of which have since been overtaken by development.
Zoos Victoria is undertaking survey work in an attempt to find the lizard.
If not found, it would be the first reptile declared extinct on the Australian mainland.
The Christmas Island whipped skink or forest skink (Emoia nativatis), Which one is listed as critically endangered under the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), is listed as extinct on the IUCN Red List.
The Christmas Island blue-tailed skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae) and the Christmas Island gecko (Lepidodactylus listeri) are both listing as critically endangered under the EPBC Act and extinct in The wild by IUCN.
The lead author of the dragon paper, Museums Victoria’s curator of herpetology Dr Jane Melville, said she hoped surveys of uncharted grassland habitats around Melbourne would uncover signs of Tympanocryptis pinguicolla.
“There is no doubt that this is very concerning and could well die out, but at the moment Zoos in Victoria are still hopeful that they will find a population,” Melville told Guardian Australia.
Zoos Victoria’s Endangered Species Project Manager Adam Lee said the species was listed in the zoo’s Enforcement Program, which is a pledge not to allow any Victorian land vertebrates to become extinct under zoo surveillance.
“It has historically been found around western Melbourne and across the temperate grasslands of the volcanic plains of western Victoria,” Lee said. “Much of this has been swallowed up by agriculture, but there is still a lot of unsurveyed land.
“We are committed to continuing to search for this elusive and enigmatic little lizard.”
Other related species live further north: Tympanocryptis lineata in Canberra, with a captive breeding population at the University of Canberra; the new name Tympanocryptis osbornei in the highlands near Cooma; and Tympanocryptis mccartneyi near Bathurst.
The latter was named for retired national parks officer and reptile enthusiast Ian McCartney, who helped Melville’s team classify the Bathurst lizard. It has not been seen since the 1990s and is now on an extinction watch list.
Currently, all four species are listed as Tympanocryptis pinguicolla in the EPBC Act.
“They are currently listed by the EPBC as endangered, but it’s hard to target a conservation management plan if you know there are taxonomic issues and you actually have separate species,” said Melville.
Melville had previously identified a fifth species, Tympanocryptis condaminensis, which is on the Darling Downs in Queensland. It was recognized as distinct by the Australian Minister for the Environment in 2016.
Grassland earless dragons are unique as they are the only species group of dragon lizards in Australia to live in temperate grasslands.
Dragon lizards include frilled lizards and spiny devils. They are distinguished from other lizards by their spiny character, rather than smooth and shiny, and by the unique formation of their teeth.