Most people thought it was extinct. But since January, rumours have been swirling that a secretive Aussie reptile not seen since 1969 had been rediscovered.
On Sunday morning, Yahoo can exclusively reveal the Victorian grassland earless dragon’s survival is being confirmed in a joint statement by the Andrews and Albanese governments. The location of this wild colony remains a closely guarded secret, but we have the first pictures below.
“Amazing” was how Victorian environment minister Ingrid Stitt described the rediscovery in a statement, calling it an ”incredibly unique lizard”. Her federal counterpart Tanya Plibersek said it was “exciting news”. In a race to protect the species, they've jointly invested $188,000 in detection dogs to try and sniff out where more lizards live.
It’s also necessary to house a backup population at a secure facility at Melbourne Zoo. CEO Dr Jenny Gray said the program provides “optimism” the species can be recovered.
Supplied video shows the lizards inside their breeding centre, with staff donning protective clothing to meet strict biosecurity requirements. Scampering inside their cages, the spiny, midnight-eyed creatures look similar to the other grassland earless dragons — a family of animals that were once widespread.
I want to protect our precious creatures for our kids and grandkidsTanya Plibersek
What led to the dragon’s near extinction?
Less than 1 per cent of the southeastern Australian habitat grassland earless dragons need for survival remain in good condition. The rest has been degraded by housing, roads or farming.
Amazingly, the four species of grassland earless dragon were originally categorised as just one creature. But a review published in the Royal Society in 2019 that examined live and museum specimens overturned this assumption. Because it had been decades since the newly categorised Bathurst and Victoria species had been seen alive, the report's authors warned they could be extinct. If this was confirmed it would have meant mainland Australia has suffered its first-ever reptile extinction.
Despite not knowing if all four species survive in the wild, on June 1 the Commonwealth added them to its list of threatened species list. They put all but one in the most dire category - critically endangered.
Victorian grassland earless dragon (critically endangered)
While Sunday’s announcement will be news to most, in May a publicly available government document appeared to confirm the dragon's “recent reappearance" at a site in Victoria.
The rediscovery was also widely known in ecology circles and had been the subject of hushed debate all year amid concerns that some of its habitat could be threatened by development.
Victoria's department of environment (DEECA) has been understandably withholding the location site to ensure its protection, but there have been concerns the wider secrecy about the discovery has removed a level of public oversight over impending planning decisions.
While Minister Stitt was unavailable to comment, DEECA issued a statement to Yahoo confirming it is working with the landowner to survey areas of nearby habitat where there is a “higher likelihood” of finding the species.
“We are working with the Victorian Planning Authority, Department of Transport and Planning, Major Road Projects Victoria, and local councils to understand if this rediscovery affects the planning for this area,” a spokesperson said. “Surveys are underway at the rediscovery site and will be expanded to nearby locations to better understand population size and ensure habitat protection.”
Bathurst grassland earless dragon (critically endangered - possibly extinct)
The Bathurst species hasn’t been seen since the 1990s, and it’s quite possibly extinct. But the rediscovery of its Victorian cousin has given one knowledgable local hope. “No one has really been actively looking for our dragon since it was last recorded and so I’m very much an optimist,” Alan Wray from Local Land Services NSW told Yahoo.
While time and resources are needed to understand whether the Bathurst species still exists, Mr Wray is steadily working to engage with the local community. “We need to get people excited, to create awareness that the species could be out there so we can get all eyes on deck to make it a great success story,” he said.
Having worked on the ground for the past 14 years, few know the region’s terrain better than Mr Wray, and he believes dozens of sites that could be providing sanctuary. “It could be on roadsides, railway corridors, travelling stock reserves… and those areas are probably quite small and discreet,” he said. “But the biggest capture point where we will possibly locate this species is probably private land — paddocks that haven’t been cultivated and retain a good mix of native tussock grasses that are a required habitat.”
Monaro grassland earless dragon (endangered)
The community is already helping protect the Monaro species, thanks to conservation groups like the Grassland Earless Dragons Alliance whose members are monitoring numbers and raising awareness. The NSW government is also working with the Cooma Men's Shed to recreate homes for the lizards which were disappearing from the landscape.
The lizards are known to populate the burrows of wolf spiders — a species that has been vanishing due to the prevalence of weeds, changes to pasture use and weather.
The dragons have been found across the NSW and ACT Monaro Basalt Plains between the southwest of Nimmitabel and Cooma — where there have been recent finds in grasslands it was thought to be locally extinct. Fire, feral animals, habitat loss, some forms of grazing, and rock removal all threaten its survival.
Canberra grassland earless dragon (critically endangered)
“The likely reason they are now critically endangered is basically because Canberra was built on its habitat.” That’s the assessment of the University of Canberra’s Professor Stephen Sarre on why his local species faces extinction.
He has been leading a study into the Canberra dragons for 17 years, working with the ACT government and private landholders who have been enthusiastic about its protection.
Fragmentation of habitat by human activity has led to the creation of very small isolated subpopulations, which are threatened with extinction through inbreeding. While much of the damage is historical, there are pressing imminent threats. One is a proposal by Canberra Airport Group to build a new road through prime habitat. In May, the plan was sent "back to the drawing board" by Minister Plibersek who will be the final decision maker.
Another issue is climate change — steadily increasing temperatures are forcing the lizards to expend extra energy and driving them to shelter in burrows rather than search for food. The millennium drought also had a major impact on the species — populations at several sites collapsed beyond recovery.
While it’s impossible to estimate absolute survival numbers across the territory, Professor Sarre is comfortable sharing the average abundance across all seven sites he’s been monitoring. “In 2021, that number was below 5 individuals (per) monitoring site and was declining towards zero. So, very small numbers, well below the numbers required for genetically or ecologically viable populations,” he said.
There are two insurance breeding populations, one at Melbourne Zoo and the other at Tidbinbilla nature reserve in the ACT, which is overseen by senior wildlife officer Dr Sarah May. Together they house an average of around 100 animals.
Over the past year, Dr May's team has also worked to reintroduce and recover the species at sites with good temperate grassland habitat that they have recently disappeared from. Through radio tracking, her team has determined the individuals are doing “quite well”. But in the wild they remain in a "dire state" and her research depends on ongoing funding that must be periodically reapplied for.
Can the dragons survive humankind?
In 2020, Australia's federal threatened species laws were described by independent reviewer Professor Graeme Samuel as “ineffective”, “weak” and “tokenistic” and he called for them to be urgently overhauled.
The Coalition government rejected key aspects of his findings, like introducing an independent "cop on the beat" to restore trust, and appeared determined to redirect decision-making to the states. After its election in 2022, the Albanese Labor government announced reforms it described as a "game-changer". Its 2023 budget included a new $121 million independent environment watchdog in line with Dr Samuel's recommendation.
George Madani, an ecologist with Grassland Earless Dragons Alliance warns the four species are “barely hanging on” and he's urging the federal government to take one key step to ensure their survival.
“Our environment minister has pledged that there will be no more extinctions on her watch. What little habitat that remains needs to be protected,” he said.
"Over 99 per cent of natural temperate grasslands that these dragons and other threatened reptiles call home have already been modified, denuded or destroyed. We can at least leave them what’s left without further fragmentation and loss to their homes."
Minister Plibersek has been contacted for further comment.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.