Reptile (re)discovered: Australians spot species thought to be extinct

26 Jun 2023

Victorian grassland earless dragon. Image: Halalananaba/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 AU)

Scientists are working with a local zoo to help conserve the Victorian grassland earless dragon and grow its population in the wild again.

A type of reptile that has not been sighted in the wild in more than 50 years has been located in Victoria, Australia. The Victorian grassland earless dragon is a small reptile – around 15cm from head to tail when fully grown – known to have inhabited the grasslands west of Melbourne. It has no external ear openings unlike most other lizards, hence the name.

Those responsible for finding the rediscovered wild reptile population are not willing to reveal its exact location to protect its habitat. The news of the sighting was announced on 24 June, and it is a significant find for scientists studying reptiles and their conservation. The last time these creatures were seen in the wild was 1969. Their population dwindled because they were being hunted by foxes and cats and their habitats were being lost. As a result, they are now legally classed as ‘critically endangered’ by the Australian government.

Following the rediscovery of the wild population of the Victorian grassland earless dragon, the Australian government is investing $188,000 in a new project that will trial the use of specially trained detection dogs to sniff out more populations of the reptile. This will help indicate to scientists and conservationists what level of conservation they need. Zoos Victoria is working on a breeding programme to ensure the species is not lost in the wild again.

“The extraordinary rediscovery of this critically endangered and cryptic lizard inspires optimism for the recovery of this Victorian species, and Zoos Victoria is proud to be lending years of expertise honed through the breeding recovery programme at Melbourne Zoo for Canberra dragons,” said Zoos Victoria CEO Dr Jenny Gray. According to its website, Zoos Victoria has been actively searching for the Victorian grassland earless dragon since 2017.

Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek said it was important to act now to protect the dragons for generations to come. “I want to protect our precious creatures for our kids and grandkids. It’s such exciting news that the Victorian grassland earless dragon has been rediscovered.” She also said that it was an opportunity to think about investing in habit restoration and the “eradication of feral species like cats and foxes”.

But while foxes and feral cats are the little reptile’s natural nemeses, Plibersek indicated that “Detection dogs are an effective and non-invasive way” to locate the reptile – and in order to protect it they have to know where exactly it is living. Conservationists are currently carrying out extensive surveys of the site where the creature was found to better understand its population size and what kinds of protection it needs to thrive again.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Victorian grassland earless dragon. Image: Halalananaba/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 AU)

Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.