On a horse paddock in northern Canberra, flanked on one side by a roaring highway and on the other by a cluster of new housing developments, a team of biologists walked the landscape.
They were looking for species – hidden under the cover of dense grass tussocks – that will be affected when the land is cleared for a new development due to be built in coming years.
And what did they find? Dozens of striped legless lizards.
But unless these tiny creatures could be relocated, their future looked bleak.
“It was a doomed population,” says Bush Heritage Australia Ecologist Dr Matt Appleby. “The development had been approved, so this population was going to be destroyed. And if it wasn’t for the work of zoologist Brett Howland, that’s what would have happened. But we’re lucky that Brett was there to stop that. Now we have the opportunity to protect these lizards long-term.”
Peter Saunders and Brett Howland examine a captured legless lizard
. Photo by Annette Ruzicka
After being part of the survey team, and identifying the perilous situation of the lizards, Brett approached Bush Heritage about translocating the doomed population to Bush Heritage’s Scottsdale Reserve.
Having worked on Scottsdale as a PhD student and volunteer for many years, Brett was aware of potentially suitable translocation sites on the reserve.
At first glance, the striped legless lizard looks like a tiny colourful snake, with pink sides and a yellow throat. But its thick, fleshy tongue is unforked, it has visible ears, and two scaly flaps as hind legs. It munches on moths, crickets and spiders, and can spring more than 10cm into the air.
It’s incredibly vocal and makes an unusual squeaking noise as it moves around. This small, slow-moving reptile thrives in grasslands, but agriculture and building developments have destroyed 95% of its habitat.
Brett Howland checks a tile 'trap'. Photo by Annette Ruzicka
That’s why Bush Heritage’s new conservation project is so important. Over the next two months, Brett and volunteers will be collecting up to 200 lizards and immediately relocating them to Scottsdale Reserve, 75km from Canberra.
Although salvage and translocation is not Bush Heritage’s preferred approach to protecting habitat, the aim is to establish a viable, self‑sustaining population contributing to the long-term protection of this nationally vulnerable species.
As Brett explains, concrete roof tiles are used to capture the lizards in Canberra:
The tiles heat up from the sun, and a whole range of reptiles use them to warm themselves and for protection from predators. We check the tiles, collect the lizards and move them that day.
Scottsdale is a 1,328ha property, owned and managed by Bush Heritage since 2006 and it has one of the highest known abundances of reptiles in the region. The efforts of volunteers are helping to restore Scottsdale’s endangered grasslands through ongoing weed control.
Relocated lizards will be placed in purpose‑built enclosures with both native and exotic grasses, and monitored intensively for at least the next three years. Brett says this will allow us to better understand their movements and habitat requirements.
“These lizards are most at home in native grasslands but we'd like to know if they can also cope with areas dominated by exotic grasses. Scottsdale has good remnants of native grassland but there are pastures being rehabilitated that other lizards thrive in too. Each lizard has a unique scale pattern, which means we can identify and then track them to see how they use their habitat at their new home.”
It will also help us to develop protocols for future translocations. And, if successful, there's enormous potential to replicate the project for other threatened species, like the pink-tailed worm-lizard and the grassland earless dragon.
These species once occurred over much broader areas in this region but, sadly, are now reduced to a few populations. For now, both Brett and Matt agree it’s a step-by-step process, and the priority is saving the striped legless lizard.
“Right now, this species is declining as a result of human habitation,” Brett says. “That’s what this project is about. It’s about protecting the last of this species and hopefully helping them on a path towards recovery.”
Scottsdale Reserve was acquired in 2006 with the help of David Rickards, in memory of Helen Rickards, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Australian Government’s National Reserve System program.