Plague skinks invade the Coromandel

In my previous blog I listed four Australian bird species that have colonised the Coromandel Peninsula in the last four decades. But it is not only birds that are contributing to the Aussification of northern New Zealand. Australian plague skinks are now dominating the local lizard fauna.

New Zealand lizards

New Zealand has an astonishingly diverse native lizard fauna, with 104 species currently recognised. But most New Zealanders rarely if ever see a native lizard. While they can be hugely abundant on predator-free offshore islands, at most mainland sites they are both scarce and secretive. Unless you know where to look, and what to look for (or own a cat!), they are easily missed.

A well concealed Pacific gecko (Dactylocnemis pacificus). Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A well concealed Pacific gecko (Dactylocnemis pacificus). Photograph by Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

What’s in a name?

Despite nearly 100 species of foreign lizards being intercepted at the border, so far only one species has breached the defences and become established in New Zealand.

Known in Australia as the delicate skink, grass skink, penny skink, dark-flecked garden sun skink, or garden skink, until recently Lampropholis delicata was most commonly referred to in New Zealand as the rainbow skink. This name is both confusing and misleading. It is confusing because the name ‘rainbow skink’ is also used for a distantly related African lizard, and misleading because the Australian species is not particularly colourful. It is predominantly coppery-brown, but does reflect an iridescent rainbow sheen when in bright light.

Plague skink (aka rainbow skink). Papa Aroha, January 2017. Image: Colin Miskelly

Plague skink (aka rainbow skink). Papa Aroha, January 2017. Photograph by Colin Miskelly

In recent years, L. delicata has become known as the plague skink in both New Zealand and Hawaii, reflecting both its invasiveness and the high densities that it can reach. But there is more to the new name than clarifying ambiguity – there is psychology also. Would you be more concerned about a colony of plague skinks or a colony of delicate skinks being detected on a conservation island?

The beachhead

Plague skinks are native to eastern Australia, and were first noticed in New Zealand at the Otahuhu rail yards (South Auckland) in the mid-1960s. Both the skinks and their eggs can be difficult to detect, and it is likely that they were accidently imported in a shipment of hardwood sleepers.

From there, the skinks spread to Hamilton and Tauranga by 1978, Paeroa by 1984, south-western North Island (Whanganui 1996, Palmerston North 2009, Hawera 2014, New Plymouth 2016), eastern Bay of Plenty (Whakatane 2003, Edgecumbe 2007), Northland and the Far North (Whangarei 2002, Dargaville and Kaitaia 2007) as well as Rangitoto (1981), Motutapu, Waiheke, Great Barrier (2013), Kawau and Rotoroa Islands in the Hauraki Gulf.

Their spread is considered to be human-assisted ‘jump dispersal’, followed by radiation from each new centre.

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Plague skinks. Papa Aroha, January 2017. Photograph by Colin Miskelly

Absolutely protected to unwanted organism

New Zealand lizards first received legal protection in 1981, and plague skinks (perhaps inadvertently) became a protected species in New Zealand as a result. The Wildlife Order 1981 provided protection for ‘all lizard species’ apart from four named exceptions (native species commonly kept in captivity). This protection of plague skinks continued even when these last four native species were granted full protection in 1996.

While it may seem farcical for an introduced invasive species to be legally protected, it did (at least in theory) provide some restrictions on the plague skink’s spread compared to if it had been left unprotected. Absolute protection means that it is illegal to catch, hold or liberate that species, and so from 1981 anyone who deliberately transported plague skinks around the country and released them was breaking the law.

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Plague skink. Papa Aroha, January 2017. Photograph by Colin Miskelly

Protection for the plague skink ended in 2010, when the Wildlife Order 2010 added ‘Rainbow skink (Lampropholis delicata)’ to the schedule of ‘Wildlife not protected’ under the Wildlife Act. However, it was immediately listed as an ‘Unwanted organism’ under the Biosecurity Act, making it illegal to move or release plague skinks, or offer them for sale.

Plague skinks in the Coromandel

Plague skinks had reached the Coromandel Peninsula by 1984, when they were first recorded at Waikawau Bay in the far north-east. They reached Coromandel town around 1993, and are now abundant there. More recently they have also been detected at Thames (2004) and Whitianga (2016).

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Shore skink (Oligosoma smithi). Papa Aroha, January 2017. Photograph by Colin Miskelly

My own experience of plague skinks near Coromandel is on the farm that my grandparents established at Papa Aroha, between Coromandel and Colville. During dozens of visits there since the 1960s, I had encountered only two lizard species on the property – a few shore skinks among the driftwood on the beach, and occasional copper skinks under rocks or logs further inland. Unless you went looking for lizards, you would be unaware that any were present.

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Copper skink (Oligosoma aeneum). Papa Aroha, January 2017. Photograph by Colin Miskelly

That has now changed. During my most recent visit over Christmas and New Year, skinks were noticed scurrying for cover at numerous sites, and their identity as plague skinks was confirmed at three sites each more than a kilometre apart.

Should we be concerned?

Plague skinks occur at high densities and breed more rapidly than native skinks. They also occupy the same habitat and eat the same small invertebrate food as some native species (particularly the copper skink).

While there is not yet any research showing a measurable impact of the plague skink on native New Zealand lizards, there are several ways this could occur. In addition to direct competition, the invading plague skinks could carry new mites or diseases, and their dense populations may increase the exposure of native lizards to diseases already present, or support higher populations of predators.

Plague skinks. Papa Aroha, January 2017. Image: Colin Miskelly

Plague skinks. Papa Aroha, January 2017. Photograph by Colin Miskelly

Apart from any potential impact on native lizards, we have no information on the impacts of dense populations of plague skinks on native invertebrate communities.

Losing the indigenous

For most people, a lizard is a lizard is a lizard, and they are unlikely to recognise that the small brown skink that they have seen in their garden is an introduced invasive species. But the spread of the plague skink is just one more example of foreign species dominating New Zealand ecosystems.

We already live in a land where all our farm animals, pasture grasses, crops and timber trees are introduced. Most of the birds that urban-dwellers see are introduced and perch in foreign trees. The fish we catch with fly-rods in our rivers are introduced, as are the deer and pigs we hunt in the hills.

Children delight in trying to catch frogs and tadpoles (of three introduced species), with little chance of ever seeing a native frog. Will the same soon be the case with our lizards?

Marlborough green gecko (Naultinus manukanus). Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Marlborough green gecko (Naultinus manukanus). Photograph by Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

With thanks to Rob Chappell, Neil Fitzgerald and the Department of Conservation for information on the distribution of plague skinks. Much detail on plague skinks and their potential impacts is contained in Chapple, D. (ed.) 2016, New Zealand lizards.

Further information

Plague skink fact sheet

Ministry for Primary Industry – Rainbow skink as Unwanted Organism

Related blog

Sunshine, fishing – and changes in Coromandel birdlife over 45 years

7 Responses

  1. Rob Chappell

    Colin, well written, the issue of this species movement becomes even more serious when we recently found Plague Skinks in the folded stitching of a helicopter transfer bag we were preparing to move Island gear in. They have raised the island Biosecurity work to another level.

    Rob

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks Rob
      That is a disturbing insight into how easily plague skinks can be moved around – and potentially to our most important sanctuaries for native lizards on small offshore islands.
      Cheers
      Colin

  2. David Riddell

    Hi Colin, fairly sure I saw a plague skink at Islington Bay, Rangitoto Island, about 1981. I heard some scurrying in the leaf litter beside the track, peered under a bush, and it was looking right back at me. I’d seen them elsewhere around Auckland and was also at that time familiar with shore skinks, copper skinks etc. Very concerning the way they’re spreading – I recently came back from a place near Kaukapakapa where there were a lot, and found one in my day-pack. Fortunately I was able to catch and dispatch it, they’re still not in our area, though I know a place only about 10km away where I can find them. Also recently a friend who runs a nursery in the western Bay of Plenty posted on Facebook (with photo) how she had found a lizard in a shipment of plants from Auckland and carefully released it. Had to break it to her that it was a plague skink!

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your comments David

      I knew that plague skinks had been on Rangitoto much longer than the ‘2003’ in the original blog post, but that was the earliest date recorded in DOC’s Herpetofauna database. I have updated the blog with your 1981 date, plus added Hawera (2014) and New Plymouth (2016) based on information received from Halema Jamieson, Taranaki Regional Council.

      Your comments show just how easy it is for these small lizards to be moved around the country, especially if they are mistakenly considered to be a native species of skink.

      Kind regards
      Colin

  3. Olwen Mason

    Thanks for this. I knew nothing about the plague skinks until I read your previous blog.

    Reply
  4. Denis Asher

    Excellent account, both of the plague skink and the broader issue of the invaded, and depaupered, environment we’re increasingly living in.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your feedback Denis
      Kind regards
      Colin

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