The Pygmy Bluetongue lizard, found only in South Australia, is a pretty amazing little creature. Thought to be extinct for 30 years, they made a surprise reappearance when a keen eyed scientist found one in the stomach of a dissected brown snake!
One of the main reasons Pygmy Bluetongues are considered critically endangered is their specific and unusual habitat requirements. These lizards are unique in that they live in trapdoor spider burrows, where they poke their heads out the top to warm up and catch prey. Both the lizards and spiders are threatened, have long life cycles, rarely leave their burrows, and are susceptible to livestock grazing, feral predators and weeds.
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to join PhD researchers Bonnie Derne and Lucy Clive on some of their field trips to get a closer look at these gorgeous reptiles. Bonnie and Lucy are part of a group called the Lab of Evolutionary Genetics and Sociality (LEGS) at Flinders University, and are looking at how translocations can be used to help save the species.
The first place I visited was Burra, where there is a resident study group of lizards. We aimed to catch each lizard to take some measurements, and to collect poo and cloacal samples so that their internal parasites could be analysed. This is important in determining if mixing lizards of different origins together will cause transmission of parasites.
As the lizards rarely leave the comfort of their burrows, we needed to lure them out using a fishing rod, meal worm and a lot of patience. From there you could pull them out of their burrows to catch them.
A few months later, I headed out to Monarto Zoo, where there is a captive breeding program. The captive lizards were translocated to Monarto from Jamestown, Burra and Clare, and will eventually help to increase population numbers in the wild.
Unlike the mostly wild habitat of Burra, these lizards lived in artificial burrows in big sand pits where they could be easily monitored. In addition to the kinds of data we recorded at Burra, we also measured bite force. This involved getting the lizard to bite onto a metal plate, however several misguided bites to the finger meant I quickly became an expert at predicting which would have the strongest bite!
Despite ending up covered in meal worm guts and lizard poo, I quickly fell for these adorable lizards. Each one has its own personality and cheeky little grin. Several of the females were gravid, meaning we could expect new babies this season, giving us hope for their survival.
I feel so privileged to have been involved in this project. Pygmy Bluetongues will always have a place in my heart. However much they bite me.