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Montane skink
Persistent field work and plenty of detective work led researchers to a species in Lumbo, Mozambique that had not been recorded in over a century
Photo: Ali Puruleia
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Rare lizard found after 100 years

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A sentence in a book from 1944 led researchers to a species in Lumbo, Mozambique that had not been recorded in over a century. Now the lizard, known as the montane skink, is back in the spotlight. “This discovery demonstrates the importance of taking good field notes,” says Allison Perrigo, University of Gothenburg.

The history of this unique lizard is a story of persistent field work, plenty of detective work, and the realisation that just because we have not seen a species in a long time does not mean it is gone. Allison Perrigo, director of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre (GGBC), hopes the discovery will remind today’s researchers that detailed field notes can be crucial for future discoveries.

Tell us what you’ve found!

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skink
Photo: Wilson Monia

“We’ve found a species, the montane skink, which is a ground-dwelling lizard with small legs. It kind of looks like a lizard with tiny T-rex arms, even though it isn’t a dinosaur, of course. This species was last seen over 100 years ago in Lumbo, Mozambique. It was also seen one other time in the town of Pemba, Mozambique, 73 years ago, but hasn’t been recorded since. For a long time, no one has known if it was extinct or just very good at hiding. Now we know – thanks to students in the ‘Extinct or Shy’ project, led by Harith Farooq, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg.”

How did you find it?

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skink
Photo: Ali Puruleia

“This skink seems to have been very common a hundred years ago, but researchers hadn’t seen it for a long time. It was found by a scientist in Lumbo in 1918 and described as a new species in 1928, but the article didn’t include a good description of where it lived. Instead, a sentence in a travelogue from 1944, by the researcher who discovered the species, led the students to search in a particular area. A hundred years ago, this area was probably covered by savanna and mangroves on the coast, but today, it’s the edge of a city of over 20,000 people. And this is where the students found the skink.”

What makes this discovery unique?

“Sometimes it feels like we have a really good understanding of which species exist in the world, but that isn’t always the case. This is an example of a species that has existed in a populated area for several decades without researchers noticing it. As a part of this, we can be impacting species we don’t even realize are there. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the land or let urban environments grow, but we do need to understand that we can impact habitats without realising it – both directly and indirectly.”

What does this finding mean?

“It means we now have enough information for the species to be assessed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) classification system. IUCN’s system states whether a species is threatened, and it can be used in mapping projects, to create national parks, or to fund conservation. For example, the montane skink will most likely be classified as ‘threatened’, which means its habitat should be prioritised for protection in the future.
The discovery also gives us excellent opportunities to learn more about the species: What does it eat? Where does it live, more specifically? Do males and females look different? Does it lay eggs or give birth to live young? There are many exciting questions to explore, and the answers can be used to protect the species.”

Text: Ulrika Ernström

Contact:
Allison Perrigo, phone +46 (0)73 784 4974, e-mail allison.perrigo@bioenv.gu.se
Harith Farooq, phone +46 (0)76 557 7668, e-mail harith.farooq@bioenv.gu.se

More about the research

The discovery of the montane skink occurred within the framework of the “Extinct or Shy” project, a collaboration led by Harith Farooq, a researcher at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg. Allison Perrigo, director of the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre (GGBC) at the University of Gothenburg, and researchers and students from Lúrio University, Mozambique, are also involved in the project.