Hunt for tiny Aussie animal not seen since 1990s: 'Time is running out'

'It's probably the least known reptile species on mainland Australia.'

Paddocks and roadsides across a regional Australian city are set to be scoured for rare lizards, hoping to prove that they haven’t become extinct.

“They haven't been seen since the mid 90s. So time is running out,” ecologist George Madani told Yahoo News Australia.

He’s part of a small team hunting for the Bathurst grassland earless dragon, a lizard named after the NSW region it was known to live in. Images of the dragon are rare, but we've been supplied with a shot by one of the last people to see one. It shows one of the tiny lizards basking on a rock, its bright white stripes contrast against its spotted brown scales.

This is one of the few known pictures of a Bathurst grasslands earless dragon. Source: Gavin Waters
This is one of the few known pictures of a Bathurst grasslands earless dragon. Source: Gavin Waters

Reason dragon habitat a tightly guarded secret

While the Bathurst dragons are listed federally as critically endangered, there are fears they could be extinct. To protect any survivors from poachers looking to sell them and photographers who might damage their habitat, most locations researchers suspect the dragons could survive are a tightly guarded secret.

“People who have seen them previously have been very reluctant to share the sites, but we’ve now got a few of them on board,” Mr Madani said.

Because Bathurst was Australia’s first inland European settlement, the region has been heavily developed. George Park in the centre of town is of the last places they were seen, but it’s since been turned into a sports field.

Ted Stein, Tim McGrath, George Madani and Chad Beranek in a paddock in Bathurst.
Dragon researchers Ted Stein, Tim McGrath, George Madani and Chad Beranek stand in the last place the species was seen. Source: Sophie Frame

Key grasslands earless dragon facts

  • The Bathurst, Victorian, Monaro and Canberra grassland earless dragon were incorrectly thought to be just one species.

  • All species are now threatened with extinction.

  • Less than 1 per cent of the southeastern Australian habitat grassland earless dragons need for survival remain in good condition.

What a dragon find on your property means

Ted Stein, a university student involved in the search for the dragons believes they most likely survive on private land. He’s been working with the Grassland Earless Dragons Alliance and NSW Local Land Services to help excite the community about the species and gain access to properties to search for them.

While the dragons have remained dormant underground during the cooler months, Mr Stein and his colleagues plan to begin surveys in autumn after their breeding season concludes.

He has good news for anyone who might have lizards surviving on their property. “While some people might have fear around people coming onto their land, if we find the dragon is present it means the land is being managed with good practices, and it probably has very good biodiversity,” Mr Stein said. “So if we find a dragon on their land it’s a sign to the owner to keep doing what they’re doing.”

A Victorian grasslands earless dragon in captivity.
Captive breeding at Melbourne Zoo could be critical to the survival of the Victorian species (pictured). Source: Zoos Victoria

New discovery gives dragon hunters renewed hope

Bathurst dragon hunters are working with renewed hope after a related species in Victoria was rediscovered during the survey of a property on the outskirts of Melbourne.

That land had been slated for housing construction and the dragons were found by accident, and there are other properties nearby that are slated for development.

But thousands of dollars are being invested to help secure the Victorian species and a US-based de-extinction company Colossal Biosciences is working to create an insurance population.

The hunt for the Bathurst species is yet to acquire the same level of funding, but ecologist Mr Madani, who spearheads the Grassland Earless Dragons Alliance hopes that will change.

“Their situation is believed to be dire, but there are lots of unknowns, because no work has ever really been done on this species. It's probably the least known reptile species on mainland Australia,” he said.

“We’re just a grassroots organisation with a couple of members. But with development pressures in the area we need help, and we need financial support.”

If you're interested in helping with the dragon search you can contact the Grassland Earless Dragon Alliance here.

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