Dr Jo Monks on lizards

Department of Conservation —  13/12/2021

Dr Jo Monks loves lizards, which have been a focus of her work as a Science Advisor for the Department of Conservation (DOC) for the past 14 years. She’s about to start a new job at Otago University as a Lecturer in Ecology, so we took the opportunity to chat to her about her work with lizards, including the fact that new species are still being discovered.

What got you into lizards?

I’ve always been a keen tramper with a passion for conservation. It was during my undergraduate studies at Victoria University of Wellington that I developed my love of herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians). I first worked as a research assistant on native frogs, then did a BSc (Honours) research project on tuatara, before falling in love with lizards during my PhD. I haven’t looked back, although I’ve also had the privilege of working on bats, birds and invertebrates during my career at DOC.

Jo, alpine lizard field work, Haast Range.

They’re small, slithery, and secretive – why should we care about them?

Lizards are a crucial part of the native fauna and ecosystems of Aotearoa. A visit to a predator-free offshore island leaves you in no doubt that, prior to the introduction of predatory mammals, lizards were everywhere in high numbers. They are important pollinators and seed dispersers of many native plant species. Conservation that allows lizards to thrive restores these functions and helps to create healthy ecosystems.

Harlequin gecko Rakiura.

‘Land of lizards’ or ‘land of birds’?

Lizards, of course! Aotearoa is a land of lizards – we have more lizard species unique to Aotearoa (126 and counting) than bird species – and they are still being discovered.

Why do we have such diverse lizard fauna?

Aotearoa lizards belong to just two groups at the family level – the skinks and the diplodactylid geckos. However, there has been strong branching out within both groups resulting in the diversity we see today. Major lineages within our lizards diverged during the Miocene (23 – 5 million years ago), probably associated with complex geological and climatological factors occurring at that time.

How come we’re still finding new species?

Aotearoa has large unexplored areas that are potentially home to lizards, but there aren’t many herpetologists doing the thorough surveys needed to find them. Also, many species are similar in shape and form, yet diverse in ecology, behaviour and body size. It is often difficult to tell if they are distinct species without the help of genetic tools. 

Incredibly, two new lizard species were discovered with the help of genetics in the last summer season alone. Additional funding for biodiversity in Budget 2018 has enabled us to focus on species that we know little about and has been a boon for expanding our knowledge of Aotearoa lizards. It has been a privilege to be a part of this mahi.

Macgregor skink, Mana Island.

Is it true that gecko’s bark?

Yes! Some gecko species have a distinctive ‘barking’ call that is audible to humans. The green gecko in the lower North Island has been recently named the ‘barking gecko’ for this reason.

What has your work involved?

My lizard work has focussed on developing a better understanding of Aotearoa lizards –where they are found, their populations, and their primary threats. Another important aspect has been working out how to monitor gecko and skink species to understand their status and conservation needs. It’s only through monitoring that we can know whether our conservation efforts are making a difference.

Lizard field work, Korapuki Island.

Career high points?

Developing and leading an alpine gecko research project focusing on two incredible gecko species in southern New Zealand – the orange spotted gecko in West Otago and the Cascade gecko in southern Westland – has been a highlight. These geckos live at high altitude and are active during the night, which is amazing for a cold-blooded creature.

My team has been working to understand their activity patterns and reproductive cycle and how to monitor these species. We found geckos emerged at night-time temperatures as low as zero degrees and basked partially hidden during the day. We also found they are likely to have longer pregnancies (more than two years) and hence reproductive cycles than any other lizard in the world.  

It’s been a privilege to have been involved in several lizard translocations – where part of the population is moved to a new location to provide greater security for the species. The translocation of te kakahu skinks, known from a single island population on Te Kakahu/Chalky Island, to predator-free Anchor Island, is one example. And the great news is that the translocated population has established and is on track for doing well long-term.

One of the best things has been working with my amazing “lizard whānau” – a group of passionate lizard experts from across Aotearoa.

Lizard whānau, Te Kakahu skink translocation.

What are the big challenges in looking after our lizards?

The biggest challenge is to develop effective predator control tools for the full range of predators that lizards are vulnerable to, including mice, hedgehogs, weasels, feral cats and wasps (in addition to rats, stoats and possums), and to develop integrated pest control planning that will benefit the full range of biodiversity. No small task!

The other major challenge is to limit the effects of human development and encroachment into the scarce remnant habitats of some of our most special lizard species.

Where have we made progress?

The eradication of introduced mammals from some offshore islands has created safe spaces for Aotearoa lizards, drastically improving the prospects for species that live there.

Lizard conservation on the mainland is our biggest challenge now. Many people are working towards understanding what is needed to achieve this for different species in different ecosystems. For now, our shining light is the grand and Otago skink programme in eastern Otago where large-scale, comprehensive predator control and predator-proof fences have enabled recovery of these iconic skink species.

How can people help?

You can help lizards thrive in your garden by planting native plants and creating places for lizards to hide out in.

Cats prey on lizards but there are things cat owners can do to reduce the impact on lizards in your neighbourhood such as keeping cats indoors or fitting them with a bell.

And if you’re off the beaten trail and see a lizard, try to get a photo and a GPS location, and send the information to lizardresearch@doc.govt.nz. You never know, it may just be a new species.

One response to Dr Jo Monks on lizards

    Neville Du Fall 13/12/2021 at 3:35 pm

    We have Weka and they guarantee we don’t see many lizards on our property. But Pukeko and I believe Ruru will readily take lizards also.