By Lynn Adams, Technical Advisor (Biodiversity)
There’s scant information about many of New Zealands lizards, but for Fiordland skink we seemed to know quite a bit. But do we really?
Fiordland skinks stand high on their front legs, they glace toward you and seem to consider you as prey rather than a threatening predator, and they reluctantly scuttle away to their rock crack as you approach. They’re a handsome skink with their dark colouration and relatively large body size. At least that was the consensus of Lizard Technical Advisory Group (TAG) members when they joined Te Anau District staff in a survey of lizards on Fiordlands remote islands. The purpose of the trip was to gain a greater understanding of the lizards found in Fiordland, and in particular, Fiordland skink.
Fiordland skinks etch a life out on the very edge of rocky and bouldery coastlines in remote Fiords between Nancy and Dusky Sounds. Preferring the deep cracks at the very edge of the high tide mark, they live on the invertebrates that survive on the rich organic matter that’s regularly deposited on the coast. They have an At Risk – Relict threat classification which means they have undergone a decline within the last 1000 years and now occupy less than 10% of their former range. They’re able to survive on some of Fiordland’s small islands, islets and on the occasional boulder beach because predators have been removed from these places.
Compared with many other lizard species, that’s pretty comprehensive information. But it’s been gleaned from a small number of experts during short trips to the islands. The information has culminated into a basic understanding of the species. Yet very little new information has come to light; most of the observations were made in the 1980’s. Even “modern” information is from the early 2000’s, nearly 20 years old. Some of the smaller islands haven’t been visited in forty years and many of these are so low lying that storms wash right over them. What do lizards do when that happens? Do they even persist on these vulnerable islets? Is the species in greater trouble than we think?
These were all questions on the mind of the Lizard TAG. “It’s a species that we believe is secure at a range of sites. But when the data is so old, we get uneasy, we needed to confirm that those populations are still persisting, and healthy” said Jo Monks, DOCs Scientist on the Lizard TAG.
In two days the team visited five island groups, most less than 1 hectare in size. “We were lucky, the sea conditions were excellent meaning we could safely land on all the islands we’d targeted, and weather conditions for lizard activity was perfect.” Monks said. “The team split into 3-4 groups meaning we could cover lots of ground.”
It turns out Fiordland skinks are tough. Populations persisted on all the islands they had been reported on in the 1980’s, even those that are completely awash during storms. “These skinks are amazing, they must hang on tight when the storms hit, and then when the sun comes out, they come out and bask in big gregarious groups.”
The populations we saw gave us confidence that the lizards are doing well; Fiordland skinks threat classification is still Relict. But the species is dependant on the people who work so hard to keep our islands pest free. They need our continued help with predators, but this trip has assured us that they are well adapted to surviving the rigors of Fiordland weather.
Find out other results from the Fiordland Lizard survey see Te Kakahu skink, Fiordland’s rarest skink