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Environmental Influence

Saving the Tympo lizard

Researchers from the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology are trying to find out all they can about the native Tympo lizard, to help understand its behaviour and prevent its extinction.

Undeniably, the effects of climate change are far-reaching. For one species of dragon, however, the rapidity of global warming could make all the difference to its survival.

At just five centimetres in length, the grassland earless dragon – otherwise known as Tympanocryptis pinguicolla, or Tympo for short – faces a challenge to survive. With a declining population, Tympos are recognised nationally as endangered.

Together with a team of researchers from the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE), Professor of Wildlife Genetics Stephen Sarre is investigating the ecology, physiology and genetics behind their rapid decline. Their aim is to inform the potential for climate change to affect lizards in temperate climates like that seen in much of south eastern Australia.

As Canberra gets warmer because of climate change, so do the grasslands where the Tympos live, forcing them to spend more time in their burrows.

This poses a problem for the tiny lizards, because while they are in their burrows, they can’t do the things necessary for survival, such as foraging, eating and reproducing, yet they continue to expend energy.

The effects of climate change on the Tympo

Although their research shows that the population of Tympos may fluctuate, Stephen has concerns that they may have already gone extinct in some parts of Canberra.

A reptile species has never gone extinct in Australia, at least that we know of, but it’s possible that we’re sitting on the first one. In Victoria, the Tympo hasn’t been seen for about 50 years.

In Canberra the lizards can primarily be found in the Majura and Jerrabomberra valleys, as well as near Cooma in southern New South Wales.

Given the extreme swings in temperature that Canberra experiences, the lizards face additional challenges to survive outside their burrows.

"Most of the year it’s fine [in Canberra], but if you get a series of hot days in a row – as we are increasingly experiencing – the burrows could exceed their maximum thermal temperature resulting in the Tympos' death through over-heating when sheltering in them', or simply by not being able to feed sufficiently to stay alive," explained Stephen.

Breeding program boosts numbers

Through their research on Tympos, the team at IAE has learnt how to successfully breed the lizards, which may be crucial to their survival.

"No one has ever bred this species in captivity before so we're learning everything from scratch," Stephen told the ABC in 2014, when they first had breeding success.

Although breeding is not the primary goal of their current work, this knowledge has helped in developing the researchers understanding of the species and will contribute to their research on the impacts of climate change and ecology more broadly.

"We don’t yet know whether the Tympos are ecologically important or what their loss may mean to the grasslands," he said. "So there is still much to learn."

Words by Alyssia Tennant and image by Lisa Doucette

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