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New Zealand’s lizards: remembering a forgotten fauna

New Zealand’s lizards: remembering a forgotten fauna

New Zealand: a land of birds?

Aotearoa is well known as a land of birds. Some of the earliest observations of the country’s natural history were ornithological: Joseph Banks famously described being “awakd by the singing of the birds ashore” on his voyage aboard the HMS Endeavour (1768-1771). Ngā manu (birds) often appear in whakataukī (Māori proverbs). The phrase: “He Kotuku rerenga tahi/ A white heron flies once” is used to refer to an auspicious occasion. Birds are taonga and part of the ‘kiwi’ identity. They have become part of our national brand, standing for the uniqueness of our way of life and the fragility of our ecosystems, and we treasure them for it.

Making species count

In spite of this, it is important to remember that New Zealand is so much more than a land of only birds. Most school-age biologists will tell you that the country’s land-dwelling fauna is peculiar in that it lacks all mammals except for a few bats that were blown here¹. If you ask them what sort of animals New Zealand does have, the list will go something like this: birds (always at the top), tuatara and wētā.

But, excluding extinct species, birds account for less than half (45.3%) of our endemic² terrestrial vertebrates (animals with a backbone i.e., not snails or insects). If we add on the other winged species, the long- and short-tailed bats, we still don’t have a majority.

What then makes up the other 53.7%? The answer is the herps. The word herptile (from the Greek herpein: to creep) is rarely used today, but collectively refers to amphibians and reptiles; groups that are sometimes considered one of New Zealand’s ‘forgotten fauna’. Aotearoa is home to four species of frog, one species of tuatara, and a whopping 104 species of lizards (Fig. 1). Lizards alone make up 51.2%, meaning that if New Zealand’s endemic, terrestrial vertebrates were an MMP government, lizards would have the right to govern alone without the need for messy coalitions with the other pro-herp parties.

Reptile species

Internationally, lizards are a diverse group comprised of around 27 families, ranging from huge monitors like the Komodo dragon to the tiny brookesia chameleon. With only two families (skinks and geckos), it may seem surprising that lizards dominate New Zealand’s endemic fauna in this way. However, in recent years the number of species in both these families have dramatically increased as genetic research has revealed hidden diversity in their taxonomy, or family tree.

Reclusive reptiles

There are several reasons why lizards might be easily ‘forgotten’.

Firstly, while the group is diverse, not all species are found everywhere. Like most of New Zealand’s endemic animals, many species have become depleted in number and restricted to places where invasive predators can’t get them. In particular, predator-free islands have been important refuges for many large lizard species. As a result, charismatic species such as the giant Duvaucel’s gecko, Suter’s skink (New Zealand’s only egg-laying lizard), and the brightly coloured harlequin gecko are largely unseen by the public.

Secondly, species that are considered ‘common’ and are found in cities, are often in low numbers and survive by being inconspicuous. As a result, they are rarely spotted and sometimes the only way that people discover they have them around is by the ‘gifts’ that their cats occasionally leave. With their secretive lifestyle, these lizards do not lend themselves to advocacy in the same way birds do – they are too busy trying to survive.

To help people understand more about the lizards in their backyards, it might seem that there is an obvious opportunity to encourage people to actively search for and identify what lizards they have... however, there is a catch. While amateur ‘herping’ (the collection and identification of reptiles and amphibians) is a popular pastime in other countries, and internationally reptiles are popular pets, in New Zealand this is not an option. Under the 1953 Wildlife Act, handling or disturbing any species of native lizard without a permit is prohibited. This is for good reason: there are numerous threats to lizards, many of which are still not well understood. One threat that is often unappreciated is illegal poaching for the overseas pet trade. This creates yet another barrier to advocacy as it means we cannot publicise the whereabouts of lizard conservation programs as a way to promote them.

The combination of these factors has meant that lizards, the most species-rich group of endemic terrestrial vertebrates in New Zealand, have far too often crawled under the radar.

Remembering a forgotten fauna

So, what can be done to reacquaint the New Zealand public with its lizard fauna?

Sanctuaries, such as ZEALANDIA, and zoos have an important role to play in lizard advocacy and education, telling the story of their special place in the country’s ecology. By paying a visit to ZEALANDIA, you can see barking geckos in enclosures near the entrance, but seven other species also make their home in the sanctuary. Observant visitors might see spotted, brown and northern grass skinks out basking on a sunny day, while copper skinks, ornate skinks and the three gecko species (ngahere, raukawa and barking) are more inconspicuous and are less likely to be seen.

There are also actions you can take to promote lizards in your own backyard. In many New Zealand cities, lizards are hanging on despite habitat degradation and high rates of invasive predators. Joining a predator-free community group and trapping rodents is a great way to help all of our native species, especially if you also target mice and hedgehogs which are important predators of lizards. Cats remain a challenging issue for biodiversity in cities. They are major predators of lizards and so the fewer roaming the suburbs the better. If possible, keep cats inside and consider making your current cat your last.

Another way to help lizards is to create habitat for them in your own garden. Rock gardens with dense plantings of native shrubs such as coprosma and meuhlenbeckia, and grasses such as spear grass, tussock and sedges can provide habitat that protects lizards from predators while providing food and basking surfaces.

Finally, there are projects that monitor lizards in urban locations. At Victoria University of Wellington, we are studying how lizards are surviving in urban environments and what effect habitat, mammal predators and temperature have on populations. As part of our research we are engaging citizen scientists to check ‘lizard hotels’ in backyards and urban reserves. Interested individuals or groups can learn more by clicking the link below.

Our native lizards have been overlooked for too long. By raising awareness for this group and doing small things like planting, trapping and being a conscientious pet owner, we can improve their prospects amidst the numerous threats they face. In doing so, we might better open the country’s eyes to the diverse and unique fauna of New Zealand – a land of much more than just birds.



Christopher Woolley is a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington investigating where and how native lizards live in New Zealand cities. To find out more or become involved with his research visit: www.theurbanlizard.wordpress.com



¹It’s generally accepted that this is the case because the landmass split from Gondwana before the evolution of mammals, though this has recently been challenged.

² New Zealand endemic animals differ from natives in that they are found in New Zealand and no other country. While native animals are those that naturally exist here, many can also be found in other parts of the world. New Zealand has 380 native birds of which 92 are endemic.

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