What you see here is one of the first photographs ever taken of a living Lauan ground skink
) -- a three-inch long lizard that is found only on three little islands in the entire world
The largest of those islands is less than one square kilometer in surface area -- meaning the entire island can fit inside the playing field of a Major League ballpark like AT&T Park
or Petco Park
In July 2011, USGS Western Ecological Research Center scientist Robert Fisher
explored the Ono-I-Lau island complex of Fiji
, with support of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
, National Trust Fiji
and a team that included Fijian herpetologist Nunia Thomas of NatureFiji-MareqetiViti
, and graduate student Jesse Grismer from University of Kansas.
The expedition focused on the Lauan ground skink, which was discovered in 1982 by the Smithsonian Institution
but not observed again by scientists until 2011, when the team photographed live specimens for the first time and discovered two more very small island populations.
Island species are of great interest to ecologists, because their existence and genetics can offer clues to how species become distributed across distant oceans, and how lineages diverge and become distinct, new species.
On the flip side, island species are also of great interest because their disappearance can offer clues to why animals go extinct, given the presence or absence of various human or natural factors.
and colleagues are applying these questions to the Lauan ground skink and other island reptiles they are studying throughout the Pacific, from Hawaii to Papua New Guinea. On many islands, introduced pigs, rats and even a type of "yellow crazy ant
" are posing predatory dangers to small, native reptiles. Additionally, forecasted sea level rise may also pose a risk -- particularly if a species' home range is a tiny island just above sea level.
Ongoing surveys will help uncover the distribution and genetics of hard-to-find animals like as the Lauan ground skink, and help resource agencies of island nations understand and manage their unique biodiversity.
-- Ben Young Landis
Photograph of Lauan ground skink by Robert Fisher/USGS.