Chesterfield skink – how have they fared since Cyclone Fehi

Department of Conservation —  15/07/2019

Cyclone Fehi hit New Zealanders hard in February 2018, but people weren’t the only ones who lost their homes. Chesterfield skinks, already threatened by habitat loss and predation, lost over 1/3 of their remaining one hectare home. Lynn Adams and Les Moran of DOC’s Lizard Technical Advisory Group made a recent trip to see how they have fared over the last year.

#120, the name given to a Chesterfield skink. She has survived her first five years of life under constant pressure of predators, survived the damage from Cyclone Fehi and avoided capture for the Auckland Zoo secure population. She gave birth to her first single baby in early February

On the 1 February 2018 Cyclone Fehi hit New Zealand.  Many people remember this damaging cyclone that caused major damage to property and cut off communities for days.  It also caused significant coastal erosion.  North of Hokitika the beachhead at Chesterfield was also severely eroded, there was major damage to the tiny remaining habitat of the Nationally Critical Chesterfield skink.

Immediately after Cyclone Fehi the damage to skink habitat was apparent. Much of the beach was eroded away and more was washed over and damaged. DOC scientists are unsure if skinks could survive this inundation

Prior to Cyclone Fehi the Chesterfield skink population numbered less than 200 individuals along a narrow coastal strip.  They lived in the rank grass in the buffer between the marram dunes and farmland.  But after Cyclone Fehi hit, much of the marram buffer was lost. The remaining skink habitat was washed over by the storm surge.

 “After the initial shock, our first response was to collect 50 animals to send to Auckland Zoo for safeguarding” said Lynn Adams, Technical Advisor in DOC’s Lizard Technical Advisory Group (TAG).  “but even with a secure population at the Zoo we were still concerned for the remaining skinks on the beach” she said. 

That’s when the neighbouring landowners jumped in. Andrew Wiffen fenced off an area of prime pasture adjacent to the skink habitat, the grass quickly became rank and layered; perfect for skinks.  It turns out the Wiffen Paddock was critical for the skinks.  22 of the 52 animals caught in the January trip were living in the Wiffen Paddock.  It seems cows aren’t the only animals that like rich, long, fertile grass. 

An area of habitat created on a neighbouring farm for lizards

Down the road Pat and Cathy Schwass were also working to help skinks.  Already aware that a few of these rare skinks were on their property, they set to fencing off new areas for the skinks, inland and safe from damaging storms.  

“Our research is now aimed at understanding the full impact of the storm, that understanding will give us a better idea on our options for recovery” said Les Moran, who also works with the species. “Chesterfield skinks have unique markings, like a finger print, which means we can identify individuals, so we know who survived the storm” he said.

We don’t know how these skinks responded to the storm.  It’s unlikely they would move away, they have tiny home ranges and being cold-blooded means they can’t move when it gets cold. 

Les Moran checking covers in the fenced off habitat created by local farmer, Andrew Wiffen

It’s too soon to make conclusions from the research but we do know that we have seen very few known animals from prior to the storm.  There’s an alarming absence of adults and very few breeding females.  Recovery of this species will be slow, early indications suggest that this species may only give birth to one baby a year which is unusually low for a skink.  Looking forward, the plan is to establish a fenced area, away from potential storm damage and secure from predators.

Adams concluded, “I’ve heard a proverb that says it takes a tribe to raise a family, but for this skink I reckon it will take a whole community. We can’t thank locals Andrew Wiffen and Pat & Cathy Schwass enough for their timely efforts to help the Chesterfield skinks.”

Lynn Adams (left) and #120 (in Lynns hand) at the Chesterfield site near Hokitika

One response to Chesterfield skink – how have they fared since Cyclone Fehi


    Nice work by the locals. What an adorable wee thing. Reminds me that there’s so much wildlife struggling in places we can’t see it. It’s quite heartbreaking.