Since February, researchers have found and gathered 16 individuals of the species to use in a breeding program.
The last time anyone saw the Victorian grassland earless dragon was in 1969, and most scientists assumed that the creature had gone extinct. However, a recent discovery revealed that the earless dragon is very much alive, as researchers found the lizard living in the grasslands just west of Melbourne.
As ecologists Brendan Wintle of the University of Melbourne and Sarah Bekessy of RMIT University detailed in The Conversation, the rediscovery of the roughly six-inch lizard marks “an extraordinary second chance.”
The earless dragons were once common to the region, but over the years, several factors led the population to decline, including habitat loss and natural predators such as foxes and feral cats. Rediscovering the species gives ecologists a unique opportunity to save it from extinction. Still, as Wintle and Bekessy noted, rediscovery only happens when the species is so scarce it is elusive even to researchers who know where to look for it.
The Victorian grassland earless dragon was rediscovered and photographed by two early-career ecologists in February 2023.
Ever since, scientists have been working to determine the species’ population size at the site of the find. They have also kept this location secret from the public to protect the reptiles while they’re still in such a delicate stage of recovery. The Australian government is also investing $188,000 into a program that uses trained dogs to sniff out the rest of the dragons.
Since the lizards were rediscovered, scientists have found and collected 16 to participate in a breeding program run by Zoos Victoria, a conservation organization that has been looking for the dragons since 2017. The Melbourne Zoo is likewise working to bring other species back from the brink of extinction, such as Baw Baw frogs, golden-rayed blue butterflies, Lord Howe Island stick insects, and spotted tree frogs.
“We are pretty excited. Dragons are a big deal and to have such an endangered dragon in our population is just something that makes us incredibly excited,” Dr. Jenny Gray of Zoos Victoria told the Sydney Morning Herald. “This is probably the most endangered reptile in the world with only 16 verified individuals in safe care, so to be able to work with an animal like this is both an incredible challenge and incredible opportunity.”
Zoos Victoria’s Garry Peterson even likened the dragons’ rediscovery to that of the thylacine, more commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger.
“It’s that significant,” he said. “We have got people that have spent 30 years looking for this species and I think for the collective team that are involved it’s probably the pinnacle of our conservation careers.”
Experts have described the small brown lizard as a “boom and bust species,” reaching maturity within 12 months. This allows the dragons to breed before dying within two years. As helpful as this can be for breeders, however, this short lifespan also makes the lizards more susceptible to predators, extreme weather events, and habitat loss — all of which contributed to the species’ decline over the years.
Per Smithsonian Magazine, Victorian earless dragons typically live and lay their eggs in abandoned spider burrows, really only populating Australia’s basalt plains grasslands ecosystem. Unfortunately, the grasslands also face extreme endangerment, having declined by more than 97 percent since the pre-European era.
Still, researchers haven’t given up on this species or this ecosystem. In the Conversation, Wintle and Bekessy outlined three key steps to protecting the Victorian earless dragons: breed enough diverse individuals to return to the wild, protect sizable and quality habitats, and reduce threats within these areas as the lizards are reintroduced.
“I want to protect our precious creatures for our kids and grandkids. It’s such exciting news that the Victorian grassland earless dragon has been rediscovered,” said Tanya Pilbersek, the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Water. “It’s a reminder about why it’s so important to invest in habitat restoration and the eradication of feral species like cats and foxes.”
After reading about this newly rediscovered lizard species, read about the rediscovered tortoise thought to be extinct since 1906. Then, check out the rediscovered Indonesian bee species — the largest bees in the world.