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Bermuda Skinks heading for a UK ‘lifeboat’

Royal Gazette
Friday, June 7, 2013

By Owain Johnston-Barnes
Jun 07, 2013 at 8:00 am

An adult male Skink is held by Bermuda Department of Cultivation Wild Life
Ecologist Mark Outerbridge. At the aquarium there is an on going programme
to study the endangers reptile. ((Photo by Glenn Tucker))

The fight to protect the critically endangered Bermuda Skink has found a new ally — the UK’s Chester Zoo.

A total of 12 skinks will soon be taken to the zoo in an effort to develop a captive breeding programme for the critically endangered species.

Mark Outerbridge, Wildlife Ecologist with the Department of Conservation Services, said it is estimated that around 2,500 skinks live on Bermuda and the smaller islands, but because the fragmentation of the population, a single storm or fire could devastate their numbers.

“This is a species that has been documented as declining. It’s a critically endangered species. It’s listed as level one on the endangered species act and we would like to try everything we can to ensure that it doesn’t go extinct,” he said.

“Chester Zoo, and Gerado Garcia in particular, have a huge amount of experience working with other reptiles and some high profile species internationally, and they are very kindly volunteering their organisation and their expertise to find out what we need to do to save this species.

“They are going to be taking 12 skinks back to Chester, and they are going to basically develop the blueprint for captive breeding the species, so that hopefully one day we will have our own larger scale programme here, which will lead to the reintroduction of the offspring back into the wild.”

He said the skinks being taken to the UK were trapped on one of the Castle Islands where the species has been less impacted by man.

“Skinks have been reported in about 24 locations around Bermuda,” Mr Outerbridge said. “Those that are on the islands have a slightly better chance because they have fewer issues of predation and development.

“Development is a big one. The slow development of Bermuda has resulted in habitat loss, habitat fragmentation. Skinks are one of those species that have been impacted by that.”

Mr Garcia, the Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates at Chester Zoo, said the goal of the project was to create a toolbox of 

expertise which, together with other programmes, could help protect the future of the species.

“It is not a magic solution, what we are doing. It’s just an extra tool along with habitat protection, habitat restoration and the eradication of invasive species,” he said. “If you put it back and the habitat is not protected, it’s not going to make a difference.”

And while the priority of the programme is to help rebuild the local population Drew Pettit, of the Department of Conservation Services, said the partnership will also help to ensure the safety of the skinks should a disaster strike the species.

“If something were to happen on the Island, the introduction of a pest or something like that which kills off all our skinks, we know that we have a population in a lifeboat in Chester Zoo,” he said.

“We have several other species we are doing this with. We call it our lifeboat programme. We are trying to do this with as many Bermuda endemic species as possible.

“We used to have five snails that were endemic to Bermuda. Now there are effectively none. There’s only one species left, and that’s in a captive breeding programme at the London Zoo. Without that lifeboat, we wouldn’t have that species. We don’t want that to happen to the skink, but we are ensuring that this doesn’t happen again.”

  • Skink facts
  • The Bermuda Skink, or rock lizard, is Bermuda’s only native lizard, and are found in isolated pockets around Bermuda and the offshore islands.
  • According to fossil evidence, skinks first arrived on the Island around one million years ago.
  • They are known to eat a range of insects, including cockroaches, but have also been known to eat prickly pear cactus.
  • The lizards change colour as they age. Juveniles and hatchlings are typically a lighter bronze colour with cream and black stripes, but as they age they eventually become darker. Hatchings also have sky blue tails, which fade as the lizard matures.
  • While skinks are typically more active during the summer months, research has shown that they do not hibernate, and remain active year-round.
  • Unlike the more common anole lizards, which were introduced by people, skinks cannot climb trees or plants because it does not have friction pads, only small claws. As a result, they have been known to climb into glass bottles only to find themselves unable to climb out.
  • Bermuda Skinks are considered critically endangered, due to the destruction of their habitat, the introduction of predators like cats and litter.