Rare skink saved from extinction in Mauritius
By Victoria Gill - Science reporter, BBC Nature
Scientists from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust have brought 22 Critically Endangered orange-tailed skinks to the UK. The animals are thought to be extinct on their native Flat Island in Mauritius, because invasive shrews that prey on them are now established there.
This rescue should enable the trust to start a captive breeding programme.
"We ultimately hope to reintroduce the species to the island," said Durrell's head of field programmes, Andrew Terry.
The orange-tailed skink was only discovered on Flat Island, which is the largest of the Mauritian islands, in 1995.
"Before humans turned up in Maritius, the natural world there had a very strong reptile component; reptiles were really driving the ecosystems," Dr Terry told BBC Nature.
The team has brought 22 tiny skinks to Durrell headquarters in Jersey But human activity has modified this habitat. Many non-native predators, including rats and cats, are now abundant elsewhere in Mauritius. Flat Island was thought to be the last refuge for the tiny orange-tailed skink.
Recent development work on the island, however, which was intended to bring in tourism, brought with it one particularly voracious predator: the Indian musk shrew. This rodent "stowed away" on boats that brought materials and people.
"The secretive skinks were able to hide away from rats and cats, but the shrew is much smaller and was brought in at very high densities and hunts day and night," Dr Cole said.
"Within a year of the discovery of the shrew, we were unable to find any skinks on Flat Island. Unfortunately, they've now gone."
Since the skink was so threatened, Dr Cole and his team had already moved more than 400 of the animals into protected nature reserves on another nearby island. So they were able to capture 22 for transport to Durrell's headquarters in Jersey.
Within a year of the Indian musk shrew's arrival, the skink had disappeared from Flat Island "Had the reptile team not reacted to the threat of development and the arrival of the shrew, the orange-tailed skink would now be extinct," said Dr Cole.
The rescued skinks will be kept at Durrell, "until we are certain that these translocated populations have established or we manage to find a way to tackle the shrew problem", he said.
The team plan to study the skink, which has never been kept in captivity before, in order to establish a breeding programme.
Dr John Wilkinson from the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust welcomed the project.
"Invasive exotic species, especially predators, are a major contemporary threat to biodiversity," he told BBC Nature.
"Direct action such as the rescue of these skinks is essential to ensure the survival of the species (in) these unique ecosystems. Durrell has a good history of breeding and protecting animals such as this and should do well with the orange-tailed skink."
The team hopes eventually to reintroduce orange-tailed skinks to Flat Island