News from the Field

Hope for the threatened Great Desert Skink

09 Jul. 2020
© Josef Schofield/AWC

AWC surveys in Australia’s red centre are inspiring hope for one of the region’s most elusive and at-risk reptiles: the nationally threatened Great Desert Skink (Egernia kintorei).

Recent EcoHealth monitoring indicates that the species’ activity and breeding has increased at our Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to one of the largest known populations under conservation management.

This is great news for the future of the species, which,  like many of Australia’s threatened natives, has disappeared from much of its former range and continues to suffer population declines.

 

Wm38 5great Desert Skink At Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary J Schofield © Joe Schofield/AWC
Great Desert Skinks are large (44 cm in length), live-bearing, long-lived reptiles that dig complex communal burrow systems in Newhaven’s spinifex dominated habitat. These burrows protect the skinks and provide refuge for marsupials, such as Mulgara.

 

Great Desert Skink monitoring 

Data from the monitoring program, which began in 2015, reveals significant increases in abundance and breeding activityThis is promising news for the species’ future – and for Newhaven. Great Desert Skinks, known locally as Warrana, are one of several indicator species at the sanctuary. Like the canary in the coal-mine, the condition of Great Desert Skinks helps us to measure the overall health of the sanctuary.

The skinks are surveyed by AWC’s field ecologists annually at eight 50-hectare sites across the sanctuary, representing a range of known population densities, habitat types and fire histories.

AWC scientists use a suite of metrics to assess the skink population size and breeding success, including the number of burrow systems, occupancy and active entrances. Scats (droppings) are also a reliable metric for ecologists; conveniently – for both parties – the reptiles utilise a latrine outside of their burrow systems.

In the most recent survey, 97 burrows were found and 79 per cent of these were active. Almost all of the active burrows were found in unburnt habitat, clearly demonstrating the importance of effective fire management for the Great Desert Skink. Feral cats pose a significant threat to the skinks and have been shown to preferentially hunt along large fire scars.

 

 

Skink
The average number of active Great Desert Skink burrows at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary between 2015 and 2019.

 

The results of this dedicated monitoring program at Newhaven help us to prioritise target areas for conservation. For example, feral predator control around Great Desert Skink burrows will continue to be a focus for future management. 

Regular surveying also helps us measure the impact of conservation land management at Newhaven. AWC scientists and land managers work with Newhaven’s Traditional Owners, the Ngalia Warlpiri People, to conduct science programs, feral predator control and fire management. Prescribed burning reduces the occurrence of intense wildfires and creates a patchwork of refuge habitat across the landscape – vital for species such as the Great Desert Skink. 

 

Restoring Newhaven’s lost biodiversity 

Newhaven is one of Australia’s largest private protected areas, covering more than 262,000 hectares of stunning arid- zone habitat in central Australia. It is also located at the epicentre of global wildlife extinctions. While central Australia once teemed with wildlife, the country’s ongoing extinction crisis has seen it transformed into a marsupial ghost town.

 

Image C Newhaven Fence © Brad Leue/AWC
At 262,000 hectares, Newhaven is one of Australia’s largest private conservation reserves and home to a 9,450-hectare feral predator-free area – the largest on mainland Australia.

 

AWC is taking action by undertaking Australia’s most ambitious endangered mammal reintroduction program at Newhaven. This project involves the return of at least 10 nationally threatened mammals that have gone regionally extinct back to the central Australia.

This exciting project is expected to see the doubling of the populations of at least 6 nationally threatened mammals. Red-tailed Phascogales are the latest species to be reintroducedwith plenty more to follow. 

Read more about AWC’s work at Newhaven here.

Latest news from the field

© Joe Schofield/AWC
News from the Field 09 Jul. 2020

Hope for the threatened Great Desert Skink

© Sally Gray/AWC