Getting to know your lizards

The common skink

The common skink

There are two types of lizard in New Zealand – skinks and geckos. It’s not certain how many species of skink and gecko there are in New Zealand because many of them are what we call ‘cryptic’ species, where lizards look very similar but genetic studies reveal them to be different so not capable of interbreeding. A review published in 1994, listed 62, many of which were yet to be named. Since then even more species have been discovered and it is thought there may be at least 90 different species that are endemic to New Zealand.

Skinks and geckos are easily distinguishable. Skinks are smooth-skinned, sleek and shiny with small legs. They have small eyes that can blink. Geckos have scaly skin that feels silky but looks to be one size too large. Their eyes are large and cannot blink.

There are five species of lizard present on Banks Peninusla and their Department of Conservation rankings are: McCann’s skink (Oligosoma maccanni) – not threatened; Common skink (Oligosoma aff polychromae clade 5) – declining; Canterbury gecko Woodworthia cf. Brunnea) – declining; Jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus) – declining; Spotted skink (Oligosoma aff. lineoocellatum ‘Central Canterbury’) – nationally vulnerable and the most threatened on Banks Peninsula.

A number – including the Canterbury gecko, McCann’s skink, common skinks and Central Canterbury spotted skinks – favour the habitats of Kaitorete Spit, near Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. Some may also be found around the lake itself if the habitat is suitable. A predator control programme is underway on Kaitorete Spit to try and protect these populations.

The spotted skink

The spotted skink

These lizards can be found at sites scattered right across Banks Peninsula. The Canterbury gecko is nocturnal and mostly ground dwelling. It grows to around 17cm long and are most often found (on Banks Peninsula) in rocky outcrops where they keep safe from predators by hiding in cracks. The threatened jeweled gecko is active during the day and lives in trees. It grows up to 18cm long and inhabits shrubs and bush. Banks Peninsula is a stronghold for this species.

Both the common skink and the McCann’s skink are active during daylight (diurnal) and grow up to 16cm long. The Spotted skink is often found in association with seabird colonies. It grows up to 24cm long. It’s size can be a disadvantage in that it can’t hide as readily from predators and populations are slow to recover from predator impact.

Predators of course – cats, ferrets, stoats, hedgehogs, some birds, rats and mice – present the biggest threat to lizard populations. Loss of habitat through land clearing, dairying, forestry and human development also takes a toll on lizard populations; and poaching by international wildlife smugglers, who particularly target the jeweled gecko, has occurred.

McCanns skink on left and the common skink on the right.

McCanns skink on left and the common skink on the right.

Over the last ten years, a number of lizard surveys have been carried out on Banks Peninsula and Greater Christchurch by the Department of Conservation, Christchurch City Council, Environment Canterbury and Lincoln University.; and along with pest eradication plans, work is also being done on restoration plans

Lizards are particularly fond of small-leaved coprosmas, which offer a tangled branch environment that offer geckos and skinks some protection. Pohuehue (Muehlenbeckia complexa), attracts a number of invertebrates and its fruit is ideal for lizards. Kānuka (Kunzea ericoides) is an excellent habitat for jeweled gecko and other good plants that attract lizards are tussocks, mānuka , porcupine shrubs (Melicytus alpinus) and totara.

If you spot any lizards  around Te Waihora, Department of Conservation staff would love to hear from you, especially if you have photographs as well.

(All photographs supplied by the Department of Conservation).