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Emergency Mahi Underway For Endemic Skink On The Brink

Awakōpaka skink | Photo credit: Auckland Zoo

Following an urgent translocation, five ‘Nationally Critical’ awakōpaka skinks are being cared for at Auckland Zoo as part of a collaborative effort by the Zoo, Department of Conservation (DOC) and Ngāi Tahu to save this rare taonga from extinction.

Photo credit: Dave Laux
Photo credit: Auckland Zoo

First discovered in 2014, the awakōpaka skink - whose name means the skink that ‘lives in the footprints of mighty glaciers” - has a current known population of fewer than 20 individuals. These rare lizards live within just a few hectares of rugged boulder habitat near the Homer Saddle in Te Waipounamu (the South Island’s) Te Rua-o-te-moko (Fiordland). A predicted beech mast – or heavy seeding event – threatened to drive mammalian predators such as mice and stoats to levels dramatically impacting the balance and health of the ecosystem and threatening the species’ survival.

“Having awakōpaka skink at the Zoo is a huge responsibility and we acknowledge the trust that Ngāi Tahu and DOC have placed in us caring for these taonga” says Auckland Zoo’s head of animal care and conservation, Richard Gibson.

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“It’s essential we grow a safety net population when we’re just minutes from midnight in terms of their extinction risk. It is also an invaluable opportunity for us to learn everything we can about this little-known species to inform next conservation management steps,”

While previously thought to be ‘cryptic baskers’ – not emerging fully to bask in the sun but seeking discrete patches of sunlight between the boulders - in caring for these skinks, the Zoo’s ectotherm team are discovering these lizards are not so cryptic after all. They are frequently observed lying fully exposed beneath basking lamps that provide the seasonally hot day-time temperatures they would experience in the wild.

“Since helping collect the first five male skinks with DOC staff last November and settling them into the Zoo’s climate-controlled facility - designed to reflect their wild climate where temperatures can vary dramatically - it’s great to see all five skinks thriving.

“We are building on a highly successful track record with other critically endangered skinks like the cobble and Kapitia skinks from the West Coast. Our ability to also care for these first awakōpaka skinks paves the way for progressing to a full-on breeding programme, once further animals, including (critically) females, can be located, and rescued,” says Richard.

While critical, breeding the skinks at the Zoo is only a small part of the conservation conundrum, explains Richard.

“Ninety-two percent of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 124 lizard species are Threatened or At Risk of extinction and awakōpaka skink is one of the most threatened. Lizards have long fallen below the ‘conservation radar’ due to current conservation strategies targeting more high-profile wildlife.

“Aotearoa is a land of lizards with an extraordinary diversity of species - more than terrestrial birds - which is in grave danger of rapidly diminishing if we do not urgently prioritise and resource pro-active multi-disciplinary conservation solutions which think outside the current conservation toolbox.”

Ngāi Tahu is the iwi that holds mana whenua for more than 90 percent of Te Waipounamu (the South Island) and puts huge effort and resource into helping protect te taiao (nature).

Michael Skerrett (Ngāi Tahu), who has spent over 30 years working in the environment and on environmental issues, including with DOC and been a Waihōpai representative on Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, says Ngāi Tahu is very much in support of this mahi for the awakōpaka skink.

“Biodiversity drives the planet, and it’s really really important that we work together to protect and save these species, like awakōpaka skink, that are so highly endangered. We can make a difference.”

DOC science advisor and herpetologist James Reardon says moving a small number of these skinks to Auckland Zoo is the first step in creating some insurance against a wild extinction whilst also offering an opportunity to learn more about their biology.

“In the meantime, our teams are working hard to establish high-intensity ground-based mouse control work in their natural habitat, to prevent their extinction.”

“Awakōpaka skinks are vulnerable to a range of threats, including climate change, but mice are our biggest concern. Most of the time they’re present in pretty low numbers but the combination of beech and tussock seeding, and weather conditions can create plagues easily capable of decimating this skink population. We’re focussing our efforts where we can make the most immediate impact; ramping up our predator control.”

This first translocation of awakōpaka skinks by Department of Conservation (DOC) and Auckland Zoo staff was filmed for the Zoo’s documentary series Wild Heroes (Season 2) and can be viewed at https://www.threenow.co.nz/shows/wild-heroes/S4073-776

Awakōpaka Fast Facts

  • Conservation status (‘Nationally Critical’): The awakōpaka skink (Oligosoma awakōpaka) whose name means the skink that ‘lives in the footprints of mighty glaciers’, was first discovered in 2014. Population; fewer than 20 individuals known.
  • Habitat: Only found within a few hectares of rugged rocky alpine environment near the Homer Saddle in Te Waipounamu (the South Island’s) Te Rua-o-te-moko (Fiordland) – where mammalian predators (mice and rats) are dramatically impacting the balance and health of the ecosystem and threatening its survival. Over the past 10 years, despite intensive searches to find other populations, none have been found.
  • Description and diet: The cryptic but distinctive awakōpaka skink remains very poorly known. Reaching a total length of almost 15cm, they are a glossy pale brown/yellow base colour, speckled profusely with small dark brown/black flecks in such a way as to create an indistinct stripe along the lateral edges of their back. While its natural history remains unstudied, it is safe to assume they feed on invertebrates and seasonal native fruits. Some e-DNA faecal samples (collected from the 5 individuals in the wild) in November 2023, revealed they were feeding on beetles and spiders.
  • Behaviour and breeding: Nothing is known about the species behaviour, other than they are very cryptic/secretive and hard to find. It’s likely they are avid sunbathers, making the most of the unpredictable sunshine in the Fiordland high country, and initial observations at Auckland Zoo support this. Like all other NZ skinks (bar one) they are presumed to bear live young, in the late summer/early autumn, but nothing is known about how often they breed or their litter size. Studying the species at Auckland Zoo will ultimately shed light upon these details.
  • Awakōpaka at Auckland Zoo: 5 male awakōpaka skinks are being cared for in a special climate-controlled facility at the Zoo – designed to reflect their wild high-altitude climate where humidity and temperature can change dramatically. Once further animals (including females) can be collected from the wild, a breeding programme can commence.

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