Jewell was so convinced of the reptiles distinctness that he included them as a separate species in his 2008 edition of
A Photographic Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of New Zealand
. Although similar to the more common speckled skink, these Miners-on-Sea skinks were smaller and sported bigger eyes.Perhaps adaptations to wriggling through the gloomy spaces beneath the cobble, Richard Gibson, with the Auckland Zoo, explained.
Conservationists began referring to this population as cobble skinks, since they only inhabited the cobble stones that lined the beach near Granity.
But things quickly became dire for the newly discovered skinks. Eight years after Jewell discovered the population, two surveys, one in 2015 and 2016, counted only around 30 animals left.
The species habitat was rapidly disintegrating due to coastal erosion. In part, this was because of changes inland where fewer rocks from the mountains were making their way to the beaches of Granity. At the same time, rising sea levels and higher storm surges caused by climate change may have also been washing cobble stones and lizards out to sea.
Historically, when the skinks habitat has been eroded they have been able to migrate inland however, the area behind the beach is now covered in houses and lawns, Scott Freeman with the Department of Conservation said. Cobble-loving skinks cant survive on lawns.
Exacerbating habitat destruction, the skinks were also facing a threat shared with almost all New Zealands native animals: invasive predators like cats and rats. Before humans arrived on New Zealand, it was a land of birds, weird, wild, strange birds like the now extinct family of giant moas and the stillsurviving kakapo. The arrival of humans wiped out many of New Zealands species, including all of its moas. Human-brought mammals like rats, mice, cats, hedgehogs, sheep, and dogs wiped out others. Cobble skinks had hung on until now.
With only a few dozen left, conservationists decided something had to be done and fast. Spring 2016 brought unusually high tides and storm surges, even as conservationists headed to the beach just behind Miners on Sea to implement Operation Skink Rescue. Over the next few months, they employed artificial rocks to entice the skinks to hide under them with funnel traps inside to catch them. Captured skinks were flown to Auckland Zoo where Gibson, the curator of birds and ectotherms, oversees their care. In all, conservationists captured 38 survivors.
Today, the total population has risen by two to 40, said Gibson: the extras are youngsters born here [at the zoo], the size of a wriggly matchstick, to mothers who arrived pregnant.
Water rising over the cobble stones that used to shelter the skinks. Photograph: Auckland Zoo
A 2015 genetic study of the now-captive lizards surprised scientists: the cobble skins are actually an interbreeding population of what were once four different groups each with a separate common ancestor scientists call such groups clades. These four clades have been messily hybridizing for generations, over time becoming a single species.This is a fascinating situation in evolutionary terms not that unusual in plants but extremely unusual in animals, Gibson said, adding that a paper officially describing the cobble skink as a new species has yet to be written.
Locals have seen zero cobble skinks behind the pub since and scientists arent expecting to find anymore. Over the last year, waves have washed their habitat away.
Phil Perrott, co-owner of Miners on Sea pub and hotel, said the rescue operation of the skinks was a fantastic effort by New Zealands Department of Conservation. According to Perrott, the conservationists not only saved the skinks from worsening erosion and rising seas but also from local joyriders.
Perrott said that the Regional Council who have their heads up their proverbial, according to him insisted that vehicles be allowed to drive on the beach even though they knew it would threaten the near-extinct species.
But most people in the village certainly take an interest in the skinks survival, Perrott added. Indeed, the skink has been immortalized in a stone sculpture at the village school.
The statue of the cobble skink that rests in the Granity village school. Photograph: Phil Perrott
Stories similar to the cobble skinks are likely to become more common in our age of mass extinction: just last year scientists announced the first mammal extinction due to climate change. Like the cobble skink, the Bramble Cay melomys saw its habitat, in this case a cay in the Great Barrier Reef, flooded by higher storm surges. Conservationists now lament that they didnt attempt a captive breeding programme before the Bramble Cay melomys was lost.Thanks to rapid action, the cobble skinks story isnt over yet. Researchers are currently looking for areas where one day the skinks may be able to be introduced back into the wild.
The difficulty is finding sites that have suitable habitat and are not being impacted by coastal erosion, Freeman said.
The Auckland Zoo expects to house the skinks off exhibit for several years at least. Keepers are now working on moving the skinks from quarantine cages into more naturalistic enclosures to facilitate breeding.
Without a captive programme [the cobble skink] will be extinct, said Gibson. Currently the programme might be considered an Ark the last hope for a displaced species with nowhere to live in the wild but soon we hope it will become an active breeding and release programme, restoring the cobble skink to its original, or as near as we can manage, home on the West Coast of New Zealand.
According to Gibson, the good zoos of the modern era not only work to educate visitors, but also participate in direct conservation efforts, such as captive breeding, funding field programmes, and publishing papers on animal behavior and biology that help field conservationists. The Auckland Zoo is even working to turn an
off-shore island into an invasive species-free sanctuary for threatened New Zealand species.
Every year scientists discover on average about 18,000 new species. Few of these make the headlines, but many are threatened with extinction on discovery. Worse is the fact that thousands of species have probably already vanished before scientists can document them. Discovery has become a race against time, conservation a race against oblivion, and the financial resources to do both discover and conserve remain far below what is required.
At least for the cobble skink, tomorrow is another day. And now Miners on Sea not only has the best view in town, but also the wildest tale.