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Our mission to save one of the world’s rarest lizards

12 August 2013

skink198x143One of the rarest lizards in the world has been brought to the UK from its native home to allow a team of Chester Zoo experts to work out how to save it.

The numbers of Bermuda Skink (Plestiodon longirostris) – or rock lizard as it is also known – are dwindling in Bermuda with ecologists fearing a single disaster - either human or environmental - could wipe out some of the already fragmented populations.

A team from Chester have brought back 12 of the skinks from Bermuda and will now begin putting together a complete guide on how to rear the rare creatures in captivity.

The toolkit will allow conservation teams in Bermuda to use the skills learned in Chester to breed the skinks themselves with the hope of eventually releasing them into the wild.

Skink

Dr Gerardo Garcia, Chester Zoo’s Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates, said: “The number of these wonderful creatures in their native Bermuda are dropping drastically thanks, in no small part, to habitat loss and fragmentation of their populations. The introduction of species such as cats and lizard-eating birds coupled with the development of Bermuda’s landscapes has also done little to help their numbers.

“It would just take one disaster for them to be lost forever. So, using the skills and expertise we have at the zoo, we’re going to develop a toolkit for raising the skinks with the hope that one day they could be released back into the wild. There are just a few skinks in captivity and all are on Bermuda itself, so we need to take action to protect them from the future.”

Dr Garcia and his team will recreate the climate of Bermuda back at the zoo using temperature data taken from the islands together with other elements of the lizards’ Bermudian surroundings, such as rock, coral and forest substrates, to create the optimal breeding conditions.

“This is one of the rarest lizards in the world and people may ask why we’re going to such lengths to save it,” said Dr Garcia, “but every species on the planet has an important role to play. What we don’t want to do is leave it until it’s too late to discover what the role of that species is and that’s why we’re acting now to save the skinks.”

Taking biometric measurements of Bermuda skink

The zoo’s veterinary experts will also be on hand to discover more about the skinks’ biology, carrying out ultrasounds in an effort to understand them better. Microchipping techniques will also be used so, ultimately, conservationists will be able to track skinks in the wild to determine how long they live and how far they travel.

How long it will take to develop the toolkit will depend on the skinks themselves – the six pairs at the zoo are entering the breeding season – but it may be another year before they successfully breed and before the complete guide is ready. The results will then be shared with Bermuda’s Department of Conservation Services and its support charity the Bermuda Zoological Society, the organisations collaborating with Chester on this project.

“We are very grateful to the Chester Zoo and Dr Garcia for volunteering their expertise and assistance with this project “said Mark Outerbridge, wildlife ecologist for Bermuda’s Department of Conservation Services. “The skink is an iconic species for Bermuda and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of this team.”

 

Skink Facts:

• The species has been listed by the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) as Critically Endangered (IUCN 1996; 2005) and, more recently has been listed under Bermuda law (Protected Species Act 2003) as Critically Endangered (CR, B1, B2b, c, d, e) in accordance with IUCN criteria.
• Bermuda skinks can grow up to 15-20cms in length
• They are often found on beaches and sand dunes and are most active until midday
• Skinks reach maturity at between two and four years but can live between 15-20 years
• Skinks are said to be very fond of cheese!

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