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Lizard study cracks new ground

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Most gardeners know the important role bees play in plant pollination.

Less appreciated, is the role native lizards play in pollinating native plants and spreading their seeds.

On the Kapiti Coast an important survey of lizards and their predators is being carried out.

Peter Kentish, Andy McKay, Marian Cox, Paul Callister, Iain Strathern and Sue Jensen Boyde after installing a new sign at the lizard protection trial site in September 2017. Photo: Peter Kentish

It is being undertaken by the Ngā Uruora – Kāpiti Project, one of the many environmental groups on the Kapiti Coast and Mana areas, which work together to support each other.

The Project was formed in 1997 to reverse the drastic decline of coastal forest; it aims to create a continuous ribbon of bird safe native forest running from MacKays Crossing, in the north, to Pukerua Bay, in the south.

Lizards are really important for pollinating flowers and eating [and distributing] seeds,” says Ngā Uruora convener, Andy McKay.

They may be small but some varieties are still capable of climbing into branches of trees.

Andy says there are about 100 species of native lizard in New Zealand but around 85 per cent are considered threatened or endangered.

The lizards are most often seen on hot, sunny days because they are cold-blooded animals and are only active when warm.

Because the lizards can live up to 40 years the loss of the next generation might not be immediately apparent until too late. Lizards eat seeds and some insects.

Predators are mostly mice, rats, mustelids (weasels, stoats and ferrets), chickens, cats and hedgehogs.

Gardeners can help by providing rocks, driftwoods, native grasses and low shrubs as cover and seed-bearing plants as food. Native plants, propinqua and muehlenbeckia, are favourite food sources and habitat for lizards.

The group’s study area is on the escarpment about halfway between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay.

Thanks to the Te Araroa Wellington Trust (TAWT) for providing the image.

It is above the Main Trunk Railway Line and below the new, and extremely popular, Paekakariki Escarpment Track. The track, also called Stairway to Heaven, is part of the national Te Araroa – New Zealand’s Trail – a continuous 3000 km walking track from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

Andy McKay and Trent Bell from Ecogecko Consultants at the lizard protection trial site. Photo: Bob Zuur

The Lizard Protection Trial is funded by the Kapiti Coast Biodiversity Project; While the the Lizard Habitat Restoration Project is funded mainly by WWF New Zealand with some additional funding for pest control from the Kapiti Coast Biodiversity Project. The Department of Conservation support the project by providing technical advice and support.

Ngā Uruora has two study areas. The first is a control area and the second has intensive trapping of pests, especially aimed at mice, rats and mustelids.

Quite a few Ngā Uruora volunteers have undertaken lizard training so they can legally handle protected species. The work is carried out under a permit issued by the Department of Conservation through the Wildlife Act.

A northern grass skink found in a pitfall trap at the lizard protection trial site. Photo: Andy McKay.

The project uses both artificial covers and ’pitfall traps’ to catch the lizards which are counted, measured and released.

Deep plastic boxes are lined with wet sponges, leaves and fresh pears (a favourite aroma of the lizards). Lizards fall into the traps, which are opened the next day by volunteers.

The volunteers have found four types of native lizard – raukawa gecko, northern grass skinks, copper skinks and brown skinks.

“There could be others but they are hard to find,” Andy says.

There was also a colony of the endangered Whitaker’s skink in Pukerua Bay. The last known sighting of them in the wild was in 2010, Andy says.

DOC and the Friends of Mana Island take an interest in that colony and volunteers have recently been out surveying that area as well.

Andy says the results of the Ngā Uruora study will be published in a scientific paper in 2019 at the earliest. The study needs to have covered at least two summers. In the meantime data are being shared with the Department of Conservation and other local groups. The project will also be discussed at a lizard workshop being held in June 2018.

Meanwhile, another lizard habitation project is taking place at the former rock quarry at Paekakariki above the railway line and approximately opposite the Fisherman’s Table restaurant.

The quarry has been noted as a site of regional importance to lizards and, in September 2017, the World Wildlife Fund gave a grant for habitat restoration.

Initially, the lizards were hard to see (hiding), there but a survey showed there were many.

Work, some done by paid contractors, has included removing exotic vegetation, such as periwinkle and banana passionfruit, which crowd out native species. Non-native grasses are also removed as grass seed can support high mouse populations which prey on lizards.

A rock pile built by volunteers to provide a safe lizard habitat. Photo: Paul Callister

Over summer rock piles are being built to make safe home for lizards. Lizard-friendly plants including those that produce lots of berries and provide safe habitat will be planted in autumn. The plants include the currently rare Cook Strait Mahoe.

If you would like to know more about the project watch the video

More information:

DOC lizard garden tips:

Predator Free NZ article:

History of escarpment track:

Lizards on the escarpment:

Restoring the escarpment:

Te Araroa – New Zealand’s Trail website:

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