Australia’s Reptile Boom

By Tim Low 13 June 2017
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The number of reptile species known from Australia continues rising, with no end in sight.

AN AVERAGE OF more than 10 new Australian reptile species – mostly lizards in central and northern Australia – have been discovered annually for the past 20 years.

A big jump came in 2007 when one paper by Darwin-based herpetologist Paul Horner, of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, named 19 new snake-eyed skinks (Cryptoblepharus spp.).

Almost 1000 Australian reptile species – more than 10% of the world’s total – are recognised today, compared to 750 in 1993; cementing Australia’s status as one of the world’s major reptile centres.

New finds are being made in the field as well as in museums. A master of discovery in the landscape is James Cook University tropical biologist Conrad Hoskin. Long suspecting the boulder-clad summit of Cape Melville in North Queensland would harbour new species, he reached it by helicopter in 2013 and captured four new lizards – the Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko (Saltuarius eximius) and three skinks (Carlia wundalthini, Glaphyromorphus othelarrni, Saproscincus saltus) – plus a new frog and snail.

Opportunities for discoveries such as this are dwindling fast, and most new finds are made by analysing museum specimens. DNA tests combined with close examinations often show that one widespread species is really a group of similar looking species.

I became keen on reptiles as a youngster in the early 1970s when there was one recognised death adder species and two leaf-tail geckos. Now there are seven and 16. The ’70s were exciting times because the pool of unnamed species was so large I could discover new lizards as a teenager traveling about on a bicycle. One, the dwarf litter-skink (Pygmaeascincus timlowi), was even named after me.

New finds made recently can arouse suspicion that some new species exist only in the minds of scientists seeking glory. But anyone with a good eye can see differences between most of the new species, including different scale arrangements. Where visible differences are slight or lacking, genetic differences are often large and consistent, sometimes larger than those between lizards that look very different. Some invalid species do slip through, only to be discarded (‘lumped’) at a later date.

The naming of new reptiles will one day slow down, but not for some time yet. Queensland Museum’s curator of reptiles and amphibians, Patrick Couper, is in the thick of the action, having helped name 52 new species during the past quarter of a century, with half a dozen more on the way. “It won’t surprise me if another hundred species remain to be named,” he said. He told me about some of what is in store, but those who describe new species are secretive about work in progress so, at this stage, I can’t say any more.