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

When the expedition began, it was unknown whether the lizard was now extinct.

A lizard so rare it hasn’t been seen in over 40 years has been rediscovered at a site in northeast Queensland.

Known only from specimens stored in a museum, the Lyon’s grassland striped skink hadn't been spotted in the wild since 1981. To put that in perspective, that was the year Charles and Diana married, Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, and Raiders of the Lost Ark was dominating the box office.

With so much time having passed, researchers from Queensland Museum told Yahoo News Australia they weren't sure what they would find when they first set out on their expedition in April.

Dr Andrew Amey with a hat on, standing in a field, holding a Lyon's grassland striped skink.
Dr Andrew Amey was part of a team that proved the Lyon’s grassland striped skink was not extinct. Source: Conrad Hoskin

"Our mission was basically to see whether they were alive. And so we targeted the one spot it was known to occur," Queensland Museum's Dr Andrew Amey.

The renowned herpetologist's team worked closely with experts from James Cook University (JCU), wading through high grass on a cattle farm, and setting traps across the five square kilometre area where the skinks were last documented.

"It's hard work surveying for them, you have to dig in to set pit traps in the black soil which sets like concrete very quickly," he said. "You can't visually survey for them because of the grass, so you just have to set the traps and be patient."

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Three rare skink species have survived

The survey took place in the Mount Surprise area, 300 kilometres south of Cairns. During the expedition, the team also documented two other rare species, the limbless Mount Surprise slider and the fine-lined slider — two strange worm-like lizards whose legs have reduced as an adaption to their sandy environments.

When species are confined to very small areas, they are particularly vulnerable to bushfire, drought and disease. Since the Lyon’s grassland striped skink was rediscovered, the area has been impacted by bushfires, but researchers are confident it has survived because it lives in cracks beneath the surface.

If you'd like to see what the skink looks like in the wild, watch the video below.

Another rare lizard rediscovered in Melbourne

The Lyon’s grassland striped skink has been listed by Queensland and the Commonwealth as critically endangered.

It's not the first rediscovery of a rare lizard revealed this year. In Melbourne, researchers announced they had been working to conserve the Victorian grassland earless dragon which had not been seen since the 1960s.

That species was living on the west of the city in a small area that had been earmarked for development, and breeding colonies have been established to try and prevent its extinction.

A separate team of researchers is now on the hunt for a similar species in Bathurst.

Hope for rarely seen skink's future

Another researcher involved in the Queensland skink expedition was Dr Conrad Hoskin from JCU, who said the rediscovery was "really cool".

The last time he spoke to Yahoo was during a more solemn occasion in 2022, when he revealed his decades-long search for the mountain mist frog had failed and the creature was now extinct.

Lyon's Grassland Skink, Limbless Fine-lined Slider and Mount Surprise Slider (clockwise from left). Source: Angus Emmott
Lyon's Grassland Skink, Limbless Fine-lined Slider and Mount Surprise Slider (clockwise from left). Source: Angus Emmott

Speaking of Lyon’s grassland striped skink he expects the reptile could soon be found in new locations. He believes the most important facet of the research was confirming what sort of habitat it prefers.

"As soon as we were surveying on those grassy areas with the deep cracking soil, we were getting them consistently," he said. "I think we've worked out their habitat really well. And when you look at the imagery like on Google Earth, you can see a whole lot of similar areas."

In the area surveyed, researchers were buoyed to find high numbers of skinks underneath the soil. "If all of these areas turned out to have them and had them in a decent density, it could be a really good news conservation story," he said.

"It was on the cusp of being extinct, but we could even find ourselves delisting it... that would be great."

Researchers are planning to return to the region in search of other populations and they have just received a grant from Queensland's environment department to do so.

Funding assistance for this project was provided by the Resilient Landscapes Hub which is part of the National Environmental Science Program, a $149 million Commonwealth initiative helping dozens of projects across the country, including in Christmas Island to Norfolk Island and Kakadu.

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