A tiny earless dragon feared to be extinct in the wild has been sighted for the first time in more than 50 years – at a location that is being kept secret to help preservation efforts.
The Victorian grassland earless dragon, Tympanocryptis pinguicolla, has now been rediscovered in the state, according to a joint statement issued by the Victorian and federal Labor governments on Sunday.
The last confirmed sighting of the dragon was in the Geelong area in 1969. Once commonly found in native grasslands west of Melbourne, the reptile’s numbers declined due to habitat degradation and fragmentation, inappropriate livestock grazing, and predators such as feral cats.
Ecologists had previously made “considerable but unsuccessful efforts” to locate the species in recent years. Zoos Victoria had been actively searching for the dragon since 2017.
The animal is listed as critically endangered under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act and the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
An investment of $188,000 will be made by the Victorian government to find more populations of the ‘critically endangered and cryptic lizard’. Photograph: Melbourne Zoo
The lizard lacks an external ear opening and functional ear drum, and measures about 15cm from head to tail when fully grown.
For conservation reasons, the state and federal governments have declined to reveal the location of the newly rediscovered population, but they say surveys are ongoing to better understand the site’s population size.
The Victorian and federal governments will invest $188,000 in a trial of detection dogs to sniff out more populations of the dragon, which Tanya Plibersek, the federal environment minister, described as an “effective and non-invasive way to find this highly cryptic and critically endangered lizard in the wild”.
Plibersek said in a statement: “I want to protect our precious creatures for our kids and grandkids. It’s such exciting news that the Victorian grassland earless dragon has been rediscovered. It’s a reminder about why it’s so important to invest in habitat restoration and the eradication of feral species like cats and foxes.”
Zoos Victoria is also establishing a conservation breeding program for the lizard.
Dr Jenny Gray, Zoos Victoria’s chief executive, said in a statement: “The extraordinary rediscovery of this critically endangered and cryptic lizard inspires optimism for the recovery of this Victorian species, and Zoos Victoria is proud to be lending years of expertise honed through the breeding recovery program at Melbourne Zoo for Canberra dragons.”
Several other species of earless dragon were previously erroneously classified as Tympanocryptis pinguicolla. However, research in recent years led to the discovery of five other distinct species, resulting in concerns for the fate of the true Victorian grassland earless dragon.
It is not the first time a Victorian species has returned from feared extinction after decades without being seen in the wild. The endangered Leadbeater’s possum, for example, was presumed extinct by the early 1900s but was rediscovered 1961.