A land of LIZARDS

Published date09 October 2021
Publication titleMix, The
A single outcrop of solid rock stands in a sweep of scree high above the Maniototo Basin, as lonely as a lighthouse. And weary after a day on the exposed heights of the Hawkdun Range, Tony Jewell turns his well-scuffed boots to descend towards it. Then several metres from the rock he pauses. It is covered in hundreds of flies. He watches them, bemused.

‘‘And then,’’ says Tony, ‘‘something truly sublime happened.’’

Between him and the rock outcrop, a skink poked its head out from the scree. ‘‘It was little more than a silhouette from my vantage point, but it was bigger than a McCann’s skink and had a particularly slender, pointy snout,’’ retells Tony. ‘‘Right away this ruled out just about every skink species known from these parts.’’

Then, about a foot behind it, an even bigger head popped out. ‘‘It was an adult. And it was big,’’ says Tony. He thought it could possibly be a scree skink, a species known to live in a mountain range nearby. But in that light he couldn’t see the lizard’s colouring.

He took a picture on his cellphone and zoomed in to check if it had the creamy colouring of a scree skink. It was black.

‘‘The cellphone pictures weren’t great quality, so with shaking hands I backed off and took my camera out of my backpack,’’ Tony recalls, ‘‘desperately hoping that they wouldn’t bolt.’’ Then creeping closer again he took some photographs.

He was able to get close enough to take photos of the colour patterning and even the scale arrangement. The photographs showed without a doubt that this large gleaming black lizard with fine cream specks was a new species.

This lizard has been named the alpine rock skink. It’s not the only new lizard species discovered recently in the Oteake Conservation Park in Otago. In fact it’s the fourth in the last six years. It’s an incredible statistic. How can we still be discovering new species like this?

In the 1980s we knew of 38 species of native lizards in New Zealand. By 2001 this had grown to 79 species. Late last month the Department of Conservation released the new Conservation Status of New Zealand Reptiles document, detailing 124 lizard species. And many of the new species are in our southern mountains.

‘‘Central Otago appears to be a real hotspot of lizard diversity,’’ says Carey Knox, a Ranfurly-based herpetologist with Wildland Consultants. Late thirties, with short red hair and a friendly grin, Carey knows his lizards.

‘‘Central Otago covers 4% of New Zealand’s land area, but it has 20% of its lizard species. Nowhere else around the country has such a high proportion of species for such a small area,’’ says Carey. At least 25 species of native lizard live in Central Otago.

For a long time we as a...

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