Blink and you could miss them.
Two baby skinks, each the size of the tip of a fingernail, basking on a rock.
But these tiny reptiles, coming in at only three grams each, are just what the keepers at Zoos Victoria’s “skink chalet” have been waiting for.
“It was a pretty special moment,” says Monika Zabinskas, life science manager of conservation and research.
A conservation breeding program has been underway in Healesville for a decade to boost the population of the endangered Guthega skink, with successful births in 2017.
But for the past two years, the program has been focusing on “genetic rescue”.
This involves bringing Guthega skinks from two different locations together at a special breeding facility – the skink chalet – to try to improve their genetic diversity.
Guthega skinks are only found in Victoria’s Bogong High Plains and on Mt Kosciuszko, NSW, and the two populations have not been connected for millions of years.
Now, a female skink from Victoria and a male from NSW have successfully produced two tiny babies.
Threats from without and within
The endangered Guthega skink is increasingly vulnerable, especially as its habitat continues to get hit by devastating fires like those seen during Black Summer.
“Their distribution and their habitat range are just getting greatly affected every time we have a bushfire come through,” Ms Zabinskas says.
“The main threats to them are loss of their habitat, predation, bushfire and loss of genetic diversity.”
The research at the skink chalet found the skinks from Victoria’s alps have extremely low genetic diversity compared to their cousins north of the border.
But increasing that genetic diversity through crossbreeding could improve their chances of survival in the wild.
“We need to have a look at all different sorts of things we can do to give the best chance of fighting against the extinction of the species,” Ms Zabinskas says.
Temperature control key to breeding
Guthega skinks are unique little critters. They live in family groups, the females give birth to live young instead of eggs and they hibernate during the winter as snow falls around them.
That’s where the skink chalet comes in.
“Part of the purpose of that specially built facility is that we can drop it down to those low temperatures and provide the environment that can best allow the animals to go through those changes that they would in the wild,” Ms Zabinskas says.
“And we do really think that’s been a key to the success with breeding.”
She says they are still very early in the program, with five more pairs of skinks they are hoping to help breed.
“Our partners in the field will be getting information from us about how we’re going with the population here, and they can see if they’re methods that can be implemented in the wild,” she says.
‘A million years in the making’
The Guthega skink breeding program is part of a wider plan to protect biodiversity throughout the state.
“These hatchlings are a million years in the making and give us hope for the species’ future,” says Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio.
The Victorian government has spent $560 million on the plan titled Protecting Victoria’s Environment — Biodiversity 2037 since 2014.
The plan has multiple aims, including at least one option for the conservation of each critically endangered and endangered species.
There are other recovery programs being undertaken to support species such as the mountain pygmy possum, spotted tree frog, Macquarie perch, phantom wattle, long-footed potoroo and spot-tailed quoll.
“The government is investing in ongoing detailed species assessments, the establishment of safe havens, targeted threatened species programs such as gene mixing and translocation and providing protection from introduced pests and predators,” Ms D’Ambrosio says.
“[This] is Victoria’s plan to stop the decline of our native plants and animals and improve our natural environment.”
Ultimately, Ms Zabinskas says biodiversity is vital in their work, because everything is connected.
“We only have one environment, and we only have one chance to conserve what we’ve got left here,” she says.