Native skinks and geckos

Skinks and geckos are the only 2 native families of lizard found in New Zealand (note that tuatara are not lizards). They are vertebrates and belong to the class Reptilia.

All our native skink and gecko species are endemic. Only 1 introduced species – the rainbow skink – has successfully established itself here. Scientists think this species probably arrived accidentally on a ship from Australia.

Origins of our native lizards

Scientists believe that the ancestors of our native geckos may have colonised New Zealand over 80 million years ago when it was still part of Gondwana. There is, however, some disagreement about the origins of our native skinks. Some scientists think they arrived 40 million years ago from New Caledonia. Others believe they only arrived in New Zealand within the last 20 million years.

Skinks and geckos: similarities and differences

Our native skinks and geckos share a number of common characteristics. However, there are some significant differences between them. These similarities and differences of our native species are outlined in the following table.

SKINKS

GECKOS

Kingdom

Animalia

Animalia

Phylum

Chordata

Chordata

Class

Reptilia

Reptilia

Order

Squamata

Squamata

Family

Scincidae

Diplodactylidae

Genus

Oligosoma

Naultinus, Hoplodactylus

Number of native species

  • 33 species
  • They are all endemic.
  • 40 (estimated) – these have not all been fully described.
  • They are all endemic.

Physical characteristics and behaviour

  • Vary in colour and size – the longest measures 14cm from head to cloaca.
  • Typically slender with narrow heads and small eyes.
  • They blink to keep their eyes clean.
  • May be active during the day (diurnal) or at night (nocturnal).
  • They can regrow a lost tail.
  • Good sense of smell, hearing and sight.
  • Good swimmers, sprinters and climbers.
  • Vary in colour and size – the longest measures 16cm from head to cloaca.
  • Typically broader and more robust than skinks.
  • The lower eyelid has fused shut, but a transparent scale covers the eye. Geckos lick the scale to keep it clean.
  • Slow moving.
  • Large eyes, as their ancestors were mostly active at night (nocturnal).
  • They can regrow a lost tail.
  • Good sense of smell, hearing and sight.
  • Excellent climbing ability using the fine hairs on their toes to grip the surface.

Skin

  • Tight and shiny.
  • Scales that look similar to fish scales.
  • They rub their skin off in small patches rather than shedding it all at once.
  • Loose and velvety.
  • Normally brown or green.
  • Often have beautiful patterns on their skin.
  • When they shed their skin, it may come off in one go or in large pieces.

Reproduction

  • All but one species bear live young (the remaining species lays eggs).
  • Usually give birth to 2–5 young, but some species will have up to 10 at a time.
  • All give birth to live young.
  • Normally give birth to 2 young at a time.

Communication

  • A few species are vocal and make sounds.
  • Some species have been observed nodding and tail wiggling at each other.
  • More vocal than skinks and use clicks and squeaks to communicate.
  • Some species have been observed arching their mouths, opening their mouths and flicking their tails.

Diet

  • Most eat insects, soft berries, nectar from flowers and honey dew.
  • Some eat the remains of dead animals.
  • Most eat insects, soft berries, nectar from flowers and honey dew.
  • Some eat the remains of dead animals.

Lifespan

  • Native skinks are long-lived.
  • Native geckos are very long-lived and normally live longer than skinks.
  • Common geckos can live for at least 40 years in the wild.

Habitat

  • Wide variety of habitats ranging from coastal to high altitude.
  • Each species is adapted to its specific habitat.
  • Wide variety of habitats ranging from coastal to high altitude.
  • Each species is adapted to its specific habitat.

Threats

  • Skinks are more commonly seen than geckos.
  • The main threats are introduced predators and habitat loss.
  • The main threats are introduced predators and habitat loss.

Based on New Zealand’s threat classification system, almost half of our skinks and geckos are threatened or endangered. Despite this, our native lizards have typically received less attention and resources than birds and other endangered species.

However, in the past decade, efforts have increased significantly. Staff members of the Department of Conservation have a number of conservation projects focusing on species that are particularly at risk. They frequently collaborate on these projects with zoos, universities and Crown research institutes. These projects include breeding and keeping lizards in captivity, translocation, mammal control and habitat protection.

Nature of Science

Scientists often work together towards a common goal, such as conserving a species. Different scientists and organisations have different areas of expertise, and collaborating can often enhance the success of conservation projects.

Useful links

For more detailed information about New Zealand’s native skinks and geckos, visit the New Zealand Herpetological Society website.
www.reptiles.org.nz/index.php?page=geckos external link

The Department of Conservation electronic atlas for amphibians and reptiles provides information on habitat and distribution for all our native skinks and geckos.
www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-animals/.../electronic-atlas/ external link

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