Teeth of the taniwha turns lounge lizard

Department of Conservation —  31/08/2021

Imagine the day when we might share our lives and properties with endangered native birds, insects, and a lizard to two. But would you share your couch with our longest skink? Over on Aotea/Great Barrier Island, this happened to locals, Kim and Frances, thanks to local conservation efforts and a lack of certain predators. Living up to the title of a ‘lounge lizard’, a chevron skink was found perching on the arm of their sofa, living la vida.

The moment Kim and Frances found a chevron skink on their couch on Aotea / Great Barrier Island.
📷: Kim Bannister

The chevron skink is known to Māori as ‘Niho Taniwha’ meaning ‘teeth of the Taniwha’. This refers to the distinctive ‘V’ shaped markings on its back which also gives rise to their English name. But for those who live on Aotea, where sightings are regular, they are affectionately referred to as “Chevvies”.

The chevron is our longest skink, sometimes measuring over 30cm. They are commonly found near forested streams and damp places due to their susceptibility to dehydration. They are excellent climbers, putting their prehensile tails to good use scaling trees when streams and creeks are flooded. Masters of camouflage, chevrons can be found in dead tree fern fronds which provide the perfect cover for their grey to light reddish-brown colour and chevron pattern. To add to their visual prowess, they also have a tear drop marking under each eye that varies from skink to skink.

One of the chevron skinks at Windy Hill Sanctuary on Aotea / Great Barrier Island
📷: Windy Hill Sanctuary

Unlike other skinks, chevrons are capable of making noises and will often grunt or squeak on being disturbed. And if that wasn’t enough, chevrons can hold their breath and retreat underwater if threatened by predators!

So, what made Kim and Frances’ property an ideal place for chevron skinks to set up home? Well, to begin with, they inadvertently built them a home when building their own in 2008. By discarding wood offcuts in a pile next to the stream and making their property safe with relentless rat control, at least two chevrons moved in. Once they noticed the skinks, Kim also installed an ultrasonic cat-repeller.

Can you spot the second chevron skink? The skinks’ woodpile home on Kim and Frances’ property.
📷: Kim Bannister

The female skink first ventured into their house last November, and after gentle persuasion, left the property, only to return the next day to the couch! Kim suspects she might have been ‘gravid’ – in other words, pregnant. New Zealand geckos are unusual in that they give birth to live young rather than laying eggs; chevrons give birth to litters of up to eight.

One of the chevron skinks at Kim and Frances’ property. Skinks are more slender than geckos, with narrow heads and small eyes, a narrow neck which is nearly as wide as the head, and have smooth, shiny, fish-like scales on the surface of the skin.
📷: Kim Bannister

Predator, prey and pollinator

New Zealand has more than 110 species of native lizards (geckos and skinks) that are found nowhere else in the world. More than 75% are considered threatened or at risk and many are completely absent from mainland New Zealand due to habitat destruction and predators like cats, rats, mice and mustelids (stoats, ferrets and weasels).

Lizards play an important role in the functioning of native ecosystems. These small predators eat insects and other invertebrates and are an important food source for native birds like ruru / morepork and kotare / kingfisher. They are also pollinators and seed dispersers to many native plants through their consumption of nectar and fruits.

On Aotea, thirteen native lizard species (5 geckos and 8 skinks) have clung to survival thanks to conservation efforts, and the lack of possums, mustelids, hedgehogs and Norway rats. Chevrons are the rarest and are only found on Aotea and Te Hauturu-o-Toi / Little Barrier Island, making them a conservation icon of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa.

While chevron skinks aren’t currently monitored on Aotea, reported sightings indicate that they are found across the breadth of the island. As such, their survival relies on everyone pitching in to help. Aotea is the ancestral land of Ngati Rehua Ngatiwai ki Aotea, the Ngāti Rehua hapū of Ngāti Wai. The Department of Conservation (DOC) manages approximately 60% of the land on Aotea in partnership with mana whenua, while Auckland Council, ecological sanctuaries and community groups also protect a significant amount of land. Individual landowners, like Kim and Frances, also contribute significantly to predator control and regeneration of native bush.

Protection means predator control, but some people go the extra mile to help the island’s ‘chevvies’. With a propensity to warm themselves on the island’s roads, Manager at the Windy Hill Rosalie Bay Catchment Trust, Judy Gilbert, has physically moved chevrons to avoid them being run over by cars!

The chevron skink is a favourite of ecologist Halema Jamieson, who has worked first-hand with these incredible species on Aotea. She notes, “Chevron skinks rely on their size and camouflage for protection, making them particularly susceptible to predation by feral and domestic cats which can wipe out whole local populations.”

Thankfully, feral cat control is high on the priority list for the various stakeholders. Further, a new initiative called Tū Mai Taonga, currently in the feasibility stage, is kicking off with a project to reduce feral cats to zero.

As for the chevron skinks at Kim and Frances’ place, Kim is keeping a watchful eye on them even when they are working in Auckland, via a trail camera. They are both looking forward to spending more time on their property, continuing with their predator control and habitat restoration, when they exit their professional careers later this year.

Since trapping commenced in 2005, Kim and Frances have enjoyed the spontaneous regeneration of bush, and explosion of birdlife on their property. This is a shot of a favourite spot on their property in 2005 on the left, and 2021 on the right.
Photograph: 📷: Kim Bannister

Love it, Protect it, Restore it.

Niho Taniwha, the chevron skink – James Reardon

2 responses to Teeth of the taniwha turns lounge lizard

    Kim Bannister 31/08/2021 at 2:26 pm

    Well I did see on my trailcam a video clip of Ted the neighbour’s cat jump and run when he encountered the repeller! I suspect the effect is pretty localised unfortunately…so not a very comprehensive solution to a difficult problem


    Great to see. Do you think the Cat repeller actually works ? When I first moved to a hillside section in Nelson I would frequently see Skinks then I became surrounded by neighbours Cats. I try and deal to the Rats and Hedgehogs as well.