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Rare Australian skink seems unaffected by fires

30/08/2013 09:47:23
au/Guthega_Skink_Atkins

The Guthega skink is nationally endangered. Photo credit Zac Atkins

Guthega Skink gives up a few of its secrets

July 2013. A threatened species of alpine skink has given up some big secrets on how they survive bushfires that will provide vital information to help its survival. The Australian Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) has partnered with La Trobe University to uncover some of the secrets behind the survival of one of the Australian State of Victoria's rarest reptiles.

La Trobe University zoology student Zak Atkins has been studying the nationally endangered Guthega Skink (Liopholis guthega) in the isolated rocky outcrops of the Bogong High Plans. The Guthega Skink is listed as Threatened under Victoria's Flora and Fauna (FFG) Act.

2003 wild fires
"A big part of my research focused on the impact of the 2003 wildfires in the Alpine National Park on Guthega Skink populations. I found that this species may be more tolerant to wildfires than previously thought," Mr Atkins said

"Wildfire had been thought to be the biggest immediate threat to the survival of this species, given their restriction to high altitude habitats and small geographic range. However, the Guthega Skink probably survives fire by sheltering in burrows in rocky areas. I discovered that burrows in areas that were burned in 2003 were more likely to be under rocks than shrubs, with burrows under shrubs more common in unburnt areas. Skinks inhabiting burrows under rocks were more likely to be protected during the fire."

Little difference in populations between burnt and unburnt areas
"After comparing Guthega Skink abundance, age structure and morphology in populations at both burnt and unburnt areas, I discovered there was little difference between lizards in these two areas, suggesting that, ten years after the fire, this disturbance had no discernible effect on this species. However, my study occurred a decade after the fire, so the Guthega Skink has had time to recover from any immediate impacts. Before we can draw robust conclusions on the effects of fire on this species it will be necessary to conduct similar studies immediately after a fire."

Climate change threat
"The effects of climate change could have a major impact on the future of Guthega Skink populations. The limited and specific habitat characteristics of this alpine skink may not withstand the warming effects of climate change, as this species is reliant on alpine conditions to survive."

Senior Scientist at DEPI's Arthur Rylah Institute Nick Clemann said: "Zac Atkins' research made a vital contribution towards conservation planning for the Guthega Skink."

"This is the first detailed study of this species' biology and ecology in Victoria. The knowledge gained from this study has taught us a great deal about the Guthega Skink's diet, foraging behaviour, reproduction and vital habitat attributes," Mr Clemann said.

"This will help us to protect their habitat and it also contributes valuable information that will help with the captive program at Healesville Sanctuary, where the Guthega Skink is one of Zoos Victoria's ‘Fighting Extinction' species."

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