Long-lost lizard rediscovered in Australia

After half a century, a rare lizard has made a remarkable reappearance, defying previous fears of its extinction. The Victorian grassland earless dragon, a reptile native to mainland Australia, has been rediscovered, granting a newfound chance to safeguard its existence.

Since its last sighting in 1969, the disappearance of the Victorian grassland earless dragon had raised concerns about its survival. The encroachment of Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria, coupled with the proliferation of invasive predators like foxes and cats, had led to speculations that the species had been eradicated.

However, recent expeditions into its former habitat have unveiled the astonishing truth that the dragon still thrives. Though the exact location remains undisclosed, immediate efforts are underway to devise the most effective strategies for aiding the recovery of this enigmatic reptile.

Ingrid Stitt, the Minister for the Environment in Victoria, expresses her excitement, stating, “This discovery is truly awe-inspiring and presents us with an opportunity to revive a species that was once believed to be lost to our region and the world at large. With the assistance of our partners, we are dedicated to combating the extinction of this Critically Endangered creature, ensuring that future generations can observe and learn about this truly remarkable lizard.”

What threats does this lizard face?

The Victorian grassland earless dragon, like many other native Australian species, has faced significant challenges in adapting to the ecological transformations that have occurred over the past few centuries.

One of the primary drivers of change has been the introduction of invasive species. Cats, for example, were brought to Australia by European settlers as domestic pets in the late 1700s. Unfortunately, this led to the establishment of large feral cat populations, responsible for consuming approximately 240 million native Australian animals annually.

Despite its unique adaptation of dwelling in spider burrows and possessing rows of spiky scales, the grassland earless dragon has not been spared from the predation by these invasive species, which has resulted in a decline in its population.

Moreover, Australia has experienced significant urbanization. The growth of cities like Melbourne has reduced the grassland habitat that was once home to the dragon to a mere 1% of its original extent. Unfortunately, these remaining sites are at risk of further development in the near future.

Interestingly, the concern over the species’ fate may not have been as high as it should have been. This is due to the misconception that the grassland earless dragon was not a distinct species but rather confused with two closely related species found in other areas. Consequently, its population was not believed to be as critically endangered as it actually was.

In 2019, a study unveiled the true identity of the Victorian grassland earless dragon as a distinct species officially known as Tympanocryptis pinguicolla. Surveys conducted in 1988 and 1990 at locations with unconfirmed sightings failed to locate the species, emphasizing the urgency for further research to enhance our understanding of these reptiles.

Significantly, the study highlighted that while the species faced a genuine risk of extinction, it could not be declared extinct until all potential habitats had been thoroughly surveyed. Finally, after four years, these comprehensive surveys have culminated in the rediscovery of this elusive lizard.

Supporting Australia’s threatened wildlife

The rediscovery of the Victorian grassland earless dragon brings to mind the similar case of Leadbeater’s possum, a mammal exclusive to the highlands of Victoria. After being presumed extinct in the early 1900s, the possum was rediscovered in the 1960s. However, despite over six decades of conservation efforts, the species remains critically endangered. To prevent the grassland earless dragon from facing the same fate, prompt action is imperative.

The initial step involves determining the current population size of the reptile. The Australian government has allocated nearly A$100,000 to train sniffer dogs that can assist in locating these elusive creatures. Tanya Plibersek, Australia’s Minister for the Environment and Water, expresses enthusiasm, stating, “The rediscovery of the Victorian grassland earless dragon is incredibly exciting and underscores the significance of investing in habitat restoration and controlling feral species such as cats and foxes.”

“To ensure the successful recovery of this critically endangered lizard, we must first ascertain its distribution. Detection dogs offer a non-invasive and effective method to locate these highly cryptic reptiles in their natural habitat.”

Concurrently, Zoos Victoria plans to establish a captive breeding program for the dragon, with the aim of augmenting the wild population. This follows the successful conservation efforts undertaken for two other Australian reptiles, namely the Christmas Island blue-tailed skink and the Christmas Island chained gecko, both of which are native to their namesake territory. These reptiles have witnessed population growth after being placed in captivity, safeguarding them from the same fate suffered by the Christmas Island whiptail-skink, which was eradicated by invasive species.

By taking proactive measures, Australia aims to ensure the resilience of its unique and delicate biodiversity, enabling it to confront future challenges more effectively.

Source: Natural History Museum

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