One sentence in a book leads researchers to a species not seen in over 100 years
It has been over 100 years since a living mountain skink, Proscelotes aenea, was last spotted. Since then, it has not been clear whether the lizard was extinct or just very good at hiding.
But, thanks to a combination of fieldwork and detective skills, we can now report that Proscelotes aenea is alive and running on the sandy soils of Lumbo, Mozambique. This is an exciting result for our research project, Extinct or shy. The project highlights what happens when there is not much data available on species in poorly sampled areas: species can be assumed to be extinct when they are not, so their presence may not be taken into account when countries make conservation decisions. .
Our journey to find the elusive Mountain Skink also highlighted why scientists’ field notes are so important. We used field notes written over a century ago, along with a tantalizing clue from a naturalist’s autobiography, to determine where the skink might be found.
It’s a good reminder for modern researchers to make their field notes as detailed as possible for future readers. After all, a species that is common at one time may not always be so in the future. Any “clues” that could guide researchers years, decades, or even centuries, are crucial.
Looking for written clues
The last time the mountain skink was recorded by scientists at Lumbo was in 1918. Naturalist Arthur Loveridge collected six specimens during a two-month stay in the area. In his field notes (contained in a hard to find book), Loveridge wrote that the skinks were found when “the earth was cleared of stumps to make tent space for a British camp”. He gave a vague description of this land: at the “British Campsite” – a military base set up during the East African campaign of World War I – at Lumbo, 3 km from the island of Mozambique. There were no coordinates or other reference points to locate the campsite.
Using only these descriptive notes, Wilson Monia, Abdulrabe Jamal and Ali Puruleia, the students responsible for our project’s fieldwork, conducted local interviews that took them to a military base further inland.
Read more: Search for elusive skinks fills data gaps on Mozambique’s biodiversity
It seemed unlikely that this was the beach site Loveridge wrote about, given its distance from the water. Further online searches did not reveal any references to this campsite; no botanical record was available in online databases which referred to the site in more detail.
The clues we needed came unexpectedly in a short passage from Loveridge’s autobiography, Many happy days that I wasted, where he briefly describes his stay in Mozambique. The skinks weren’t mentioned, but he did describe his daily routine. It was a single sentence that led the trio of mountain skink researchers:
The camp itself was on a sort of peninsula; on the other side of Lumbo Bay, there were acres of mudflats covered with mangrove trees.
After a quick glance at Google maps, the team immediately found this site and set up some new traps. In less than two weeks, we had found the mountain skink; students have so far registered four individuals.
In 1918, Lumbo was most likely mainly covered inland by savannah and mangrove on the coast. Today it is home to around 20,000 people – double what it was 50 years ago, far more densely populated than it was in Loveridge’s time. As you travel through the region, you will see paved roads and cement houses; there are farms and wetlands, but very little native vegetation remains.
More work to come
The project is now collecting important ecological information to map and assess the species. The mountain skink is listed as “insufficient data” speak International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Once more data has been provided, the species can be assessed as Restricted or Threatened; these two categories require countries to put in place certain protections to support species at risk.
Read more: We used 60-year-old notebooks to find out why male hippos have larger tusks than females
Finding the Mountain Skink doesn’t mean Extinct’s or Shy’s job is done. The team is also trying to find another species, Boulenger’s legless skink (Scolecoseps boulengeri). There is even less information on this species than on the Mountain Skink; so far our research has been unsuccessful.
Detail is the key
One of the biggest lessons to be learned from this work is that the richness of the field notes is crucial. The level of detail that researchers use today in their field notes varies greatly; some provide minimal detail while others document weather, soil type, associated species, micro-habitat and more. And, while field notes can be stored in online backups, a significant number undoubtedly remains on shelves, attics, and moving boxes as researchers progress through their seasons of research. field and their career. This carries a risk that the data is easily lost forever.
When it comes to reptiles like skinks, many modern surveys are conducted using both trapping and active search methods. Explicitly describing how many of each species are recorded, as well as where and how they were obtained, can provide valuable detail for studies that aim to replicate past results.
This is increasingly important in areas that are changing rapidly due to urbanization, the expansion of agriculture and which are suffering the adverse effects of climate change.
It was a description of an encampment that led us to find the mountain skink after 100 years of no scientific record in the area. We hope that in the future, field biologists, with the support and encouragement of editors and journals, will include this relevant information alongside species checklists in their scientific publications.