Australia’s nature is incredible, and many of the plants and animals that we love are found nowhere else on earth. But habitat destruction, pest species, and climate change induced extreme fires and floods are driving our wildlife to extinction.
When we think of this extinction crisis, it’s easy to conjure up pictures of koalas and coral reefs - but how many of us think of geckos, dragons and snakes?
There are currently 73 reptile species on Australia’s threatened species list and with new reptiles being discovered every year this number can be expected to grow. As conservation efforts focus on the ‘cute and cuddlies’ it’s easy to forget about the unique reptiles that call our big backyard home. But the recent listing of three new species of grassland earless dragon is a poignant reminder that our governments and businesses are not doing enough to protect Australia’s wildlife, least of all our reptiles.
By understanding and sharing the story of Australia’s grassland earless dragons we can combat this bias to create a world where all species are protected whether they are ‘iconic’ or not. From the magpie warbling in a neighborhood gum tree to the blue-tongue lizard living under your verandah—every plant and animal plays an important role in the ecosystems that support us. Together we can protect and restore nature so that people and all wildlife can thrive.
Australia is home to almost 1000 reptile species. Our big backyard supports over 10% of the world's total reptile species, with 93% of Aussie reptiles being found nowhere else on earth.
Grassland earless dragons are a prime example of how cool and unique Australian reptiles are. Measuring in at about 16cm from nose to tail and weighing between 5-9 grams, these dragons are so small that you could hold one on your finger.
As the name suggests, they are grassland specialists and, unlike most other lizards, they don’t have external ear openings. They are usually light brown in colour with thin white stripes and darker bands running across their bodies. The dragons are capable of breeding the year they are born, and wild dragons likely only breed once in their lifetime. They eat small insects including ants and spiders, playing an important role in maintaining the balance of their grassland homes.
A taxonomic review in 2019 demonstrated that what was once thought to be a single species of grassland earless dragon is actually four: The Canberra grassland earless dragon, the Bathurst grassland earless dragon, the Victorian grassland earless dragon, and the Monaro grassland earless dragon.
Only two of these newly-identified species are known to have persisting wild populations, the Canberra grassland earless dragon and the Monaro grassland earless dragon. The Victorian grassland earless dragon and the Bathurst grassland earless dragon both appear on the ‘20 most likely reptile species to go extinct by 2040’ list with a 93% and 62% chance of extinction respectively.
Being small and cryptic animals that enjoy hiding in holes, grassland earless dragons are difficult to find in the wild. But it’s alarming that the Bathurst grassland earless dragon has not been identified since 1996. Its extinction would represent the first reptile extinction ever recorded on mainland Australia.
It took a whopping four years after it was accepted that there are in fact four species of grassland earless dragon, and not one, for these little creatures to be protected under our national environment laws. In June 2023 all four species were listed as “critically endangered”. For the Victorian grassland earless dragon this represented an upgrade from the “endangered” category but for the three other species of dragon, it was the first time they have ever been acknowledged and therefore protected by Australia’s national environment laws.
The answer to this question is simple: we destroyed their homes. Grassland earless dragons are the Goldilocks of the reptile world in that they are very particular about their habitat. They live exclusively in Australia’s native grasslands—of which there is less than 1% left.
Australia’s native grasslands have been destroyed for agriculture and urban development at an extraordinary rate as their natural treelessness makes them appealing to developers. And what’s worse, there are still proposals being considered to destroy what's left of our remaining native grasslands.
Compounded by the effects of a changing climate, and predation by introduced pests such as cats and foxes, these little lizards need urgent action to secure their futures.
Australia’s environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek has committed to no new extinctions on her watch, and has even identified the Canberra grassland earless dragon as a priority species for recovery. But if our environment laws are failing to protect iconic species like the koala, what hope is there for the lesser-known grassland earless dragons?
The good news is we have the solutions at our fingertips. There have been successful breakthroughs in breeding programs for the Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon, and habitat restoration programs for the Monaro Grassland Earless Dragon. The Victorian grassland earless dragon has also just been rediscovered in the wild after over 50 years. Demand has also grown for new nature laws that protect all our plants and animals and the Federal Government has committed to delivering these laws.