Rare Aussie animal you can only see at one zoo

These tiny grassland earless dragons are near impossible to spot in the wild, and until recently it was believed they were extinct.

Visitors to an Australian zoo are able to view an elusive reptile only a handful of people have seen in the wild. The tiny Victorian grassland earless dragon was thought to be extinct until 2023 when it was rediscovered at the site of a proposed housing development.

The location of the Victorian rediscovery site is a closely guarded secret. So if you’re wanting to see this rare and unusual creature, the only place to do so is at a tiny exhibit near the entrance of Melbourne Zoo.

“Not a lot is known about them. They’re quite a cryptic little species and they’re hard to observe in the wild,” the dragon's specialist keeper Rory Keenan told Yahoo News.

Rory Keenan standing in front of rows of Victorian grassland earless dragons cages.
Rory Keenan is the Victorian grassland earless dragons specialist keeper. Source: Jo Howell, Zoos Victoria

Grassland earless dragons are reddish-brown in colour and weigh no more than seven grams, and adults are just 5cm long. They live underground in tiny burrows and are referred to as a Goldilocks species because they require conditions that are "just right" to survive.

Because over 99 per cent of the Victorian dragon’s habitat has already been destroyed, the zoo has collected 32 from the wild and established a conservation breeding program. From 10 breeding pairs they’ve hatched out 51 babies.

The dragons are protected by biosecurity controls to keep them safe from diseases that could wipe the colony out. Inside the environmentally-controlled enclosure are rows of metre-long cages containing grass tussocks and burrows they need to thrive.

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

A Victorian grassland earless dragon in a natural looking environment.
Conditions inside Victorian grassland earless dragon enclosures are designed to mimic their natural environment. Source: Jo Howell, Zoos Victoria

“Nerve-racking” is how Keenan describes the weight of caring for such a rare species, and he admits to having many sleepless nights because he’s responsible for what could be half of the entire population of the species.

Keenan learned how to care for Victoria’s dragons by working for five years on a captive breeding program for the closely related critically endangered Canberra grassland earless dragon.

All remaining populations of dragons across the country are on the brink of extinction. In 2019, a survey of the Canberra species counted hundreds in the wild, but this year they only counted 11. The hunt is now on to see if the Bathurst species still exists – it hasn’t been spotted since the 1990s. While the Monaro dragon is doing slightly better, it is still listed as endangered which is just two notches above extinct.

Related: Rare Aussie creature not seen in 40 years rediscovered hiding under long grass

A Victorian grassland earless dragon standing on top of some leaves and sticks.
Victorian grassland earless dragons have lost 99 per cent of their native habitat. Source: Jo Howell, Zoos Victoria

When it comes to the Victorian species, planning authorities have not yet revealed how much of its potential habitat will be bulldozed for new housing and how much will be protected to help prevent its extinction in the wild.

Speaking generally about the plight of all dragon species, Keenan admits their situation in the wild is “concerning”. But he has more to add. “I also feel like there’s hope for these types of cryptic species that could be holding on in small areas just on the brink of extinction. It’s really important not to give up.”

The Melbourne Zoo conservation breeding program now has a target of establishing a population of 500 animals, and plans to eventually set up more breeding colonies.

“I think our next step would ideally be to move animals into more outdoor naturalistic set-ups where they’re exposed to the natural elements,” Keenan said. “And then the key thing is to secure habitat and to ensure further loss of habitat doesn’t occur.”

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