At just three inches long and weighing about as much as a quarter, Australia’s grassland earless dragon is not quite as fierce as a fictional fire-breathing dragon, but the little critter is still producing a lot of anxiety for wildlife conservationists. That’s because the tiny dragon is seriously endangered, and a new study finds there’s even more to fret about. The reptile is not just one species, but four distinct types of endangered dragons—and one of them may already be extinct, according to a paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
After reviewing anatomic and genetic data, the study’s lead author Jane Melville, a taxonomist at Museum Victoria, and her colleagues found that populations of the grassland earless dragon are distinct enough to warrant reclassification as four independent species: the Bathurst, Canberra, Monaro and Victorian grassland earless dragons, reports Robyn Wuth at the Australian Associated Press.
“They look very, very similar, but there are clear differences in the types of scales on their back and the shape of their skulls,” Melville tells Tim Verimmen at National Geographic.
Splitting the dragon into smaller populations makes each imperiled species even more rare. “The single species was already listed as a threatened species at a federal level,” Melville tells the AAP. “Now that they are four separate species the conservation recovery teams will be working to re-evaluate the status of the species.”
Of particular concern is the Victorian dragon, whose range is around the city of Melbourne. That population, now dubbed a new species, was originally discovered in the 1940s, but it hasn’t been officially observed since 1969. In the meantime, much of its former habitat has become part of urban Melbourne or agricultural land. If it is indeed gone, it would be the first lizard species declared extinct on mainland Australia.
But not everyone is giving up on the Victorian dragon—and there’s reason to hold out hope. The grassland earless dragon once disappeared for 30 years and was only rediscovered in 1991. It’s possible that the Victorian dragon is also just in hiding. Since 2017, Zoos Victoria has been searching for any remnant populations of the lizard. In 2018, they set up pitfall traps in areas where the lizards are most likely to still exist. Though they did not find any grassland dragons, they were able to learn more about the diversity at these sites and the potential for them to support the species. And in the past two years, citizen scientists have reports nine possible sightings of the dragons in the area.
Andrew Brown at The Canberra Times reports that researchers are also using a new method to find the reclusive lizards. Earlier this month, parks and conservation officers in the Australian Capital Territory have begun using conservation dogs, including a springer spaniel named Tommy, to keep tabs on the grassland dragons in the Jerrabomberra valley, one of their hideouts in the area.
After a 13-week training regimen that required sniffing a lot of lizard droppings, Tommy the spaniel now points to the ground when he comes upon a lizard burrow. Currently, Tommy is just in the testing phase, but if he proves to be a good reptile finder, he’ll become part of the monitoring scheme. Brown reports that staff say using the dog could cut hundreds of hours in the field, save money, and, potentially, find more lizards than humans could on their own.