Australian Reptiles And a Toad Named After Gollum on Latest Endangered Species Update

The IUCN Red List shows Oz’s reptiles are in trouble as well as flying foxes, a Jamaican rodent and a New Guinea butterfly

Precious Stream Toad
Chan Kin Ott

The latest update to the IUCN Red List, the global list of endangered species, emphasizes something we’ve known for a while—human activity is hammering what’s left of the natural world. According to the update, 26,197 species of plants and animals are currently threatened with extinction. Among the creatures added to the list in the latest update are many of Australia’s reptiles, the Mauritian flying fox and a toad named after Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.

“IUCN Red List[’s] update reveals the onslaught of threats that our planet’s biodiversity is facing,” IUCN director general Inger Andersen says in the news release. “Invasive species, changes to fire patterns, cyclones and human-wildlife conflict are just some of the many threats wreaking havoc on our planet’s ecosystems.”

There are currently 872 species once on the IUCN Red List that have now been declared Extinct, Jonathan Watts at The Guardian reports. Some 5,664 are listed as Critically Endangered, and some of those may already be gone.

Acting on recent research, including a study published last month showing feral cats and outdoor pets are munching over 1 million reptiles per day in Australia, the list upgraded the Grassland Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) from Vulnerable to the Endangered category. Mitchell’s Water Monitor (Varanus mitchelli), is listed as Critically Endangered; the lizard population has been decimated by eating invasive cane toads, which are poisonous. Climate change is also threatening some Aussie reptile species that live in cool enclaves, like the Bartle Frere Cool-skink (Techmarscincus jigurru), which only lives on the top of Queensland’s highest mountain. In total, 7 percent of the lizards and snakes found Down Under are now threatened with extinction.

Another notable on the list: the Mauritian Flying Fox (Pteropus niger), a huge bat species found only on the islands of Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean. That species had already been hard hit, with cyclones destroying colonies on outlying islands and with deforestation and hunting taking a toll. But it was primarily moved from Vulnerable to Endangered because of a government cull of the bats following claims they were damaging lychee and mango crops.

Other species that have reached Endangered status include the Precious Stream-toad (Ansonia smeagol) named for its shared characteristics to the creature famously imagined up by J.R.R. Tolkien. (As Chan Kin Onn of the University of Singapore explains to Helen Briggs at the BBC: “Smeagol from Lord of the Rings is a semi-aquatic creature ...[Smeagol has] large eyes, occurs up in the mountains and has long thin limbs. And funnily enough his digits are also extended. These are all characters that this little stream-toad also has.”) According to the update, its habitat on Peninsular Malaysia is threatened by tourism development, which is polluting the streams it calls home.

The Jamaican Hutia (Geocapromys brownii), a rodent endemic to the island, reached Endangered status due to habitat loss, as well as hunting and predation by invasive species. The turquoise-and-yellow Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), continues to be listed as Endangered; while illegal trade to butterfly collectors was ended decades ago, a new assessment of the world’s largest butterfly found that it remains in trouble due to habitat loss.

The slow uptick in the number of endangered species is sobering. “This reinforces the theory that we are moving into a period when extinctions are taking place at a much higher pace than the natural background rate,” Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the Red List unit at Cambridge University, tells Watts. “We are endangering the life support systems of our planet and putting the future of our own species in jeopardy.”

There was on bright spot in the report. Four amphibian species thought to be Possibly Extinct or Extinct were rediscovered in Colombia and Ecuador, including the Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad (Atelopus balios), Quito Stubfoot Toad (Atelopus ignescens) and the Carchi Andes Toad (Rhaebo colomai). All of them were believed to have been eradicated by the chytrid fungus, which has decimated frog and toad populations throughout Central and South America.

“While these rediscoveries are encouraging news, the species are still negatively impacted by human-induced threats,” Jennifer Luedtke, amphibian Red List authority coordinator, says in the update. “These species still have to contend with severe habitat destruction and degradation, predation by non-native trout species, chytridiomycosis, and the effects of a changing climate, highlighting the urgent need to improve the conservation of these species to prevent their extinction.”

What can be done to prevent more species from slipping into endangered status? A lot, though most of it is extremely difficult. Stopping climate change. Preventing deforestation and habitat loss. Reducing ocean pollution and the use of insect-harming pesticides. Cristiana Pașca Palmer, the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, tells Watts the world needs a biodiversity pact on the same stature as the Paris Climate Accords. That idea, called “Half-Earth,” would result in half the world being safeguarded for nature by 2050s. While its gaining support among biologists and conservationists, getting politicians and policy-makers onboard is a larger challenge.