Wild South East

Gippsland: The Skink’s Domain

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I’ve been fascinated by reptiles since I was a child and whenever I get the chance I’m trying to ‘hunt’ them down to observe and photograph them in the field.

Since moving to the cool climate of South Gippsland in southern Victoria several years ago I was surprised at the number of reptiles encountered on my trips to the bush in this region. It soon became apparent that although there were quite a lot of species there wasn’t that much diversity in terms of representatives of the reptile families. Skinks (Scincidae) dominate the reptile fauna in Gippsland with 32 official species listed. There are some families such as Geckos (Gekkonidae), Legless Lizards (Pygopodidae), Pythons (Boidae) and Front-fanged Snakes (Colubridae) which are typically dry land or tropical species and these have little or no representatives in the region.

Gippsland includes much of Victoria’s alpine and highland country as well as the eastern coastal plains. The majority of reptiles in this region go through a type of semi-hibernation called brumation in which they become inactive over the cooler months of the year, occasionally emerging briefly on warm days in winter to replenish themselves.

Due to the cool temperate climate of Gippsland many reptile species are viviparous where the young are born live instead of in an egg. This is because eggs usually require some degree of warmth for incubation and as such the egg stage is completed in the mother. In general most of the smaller skinks lay eggs and these are often laid in communal nests occupied by a number of adults, often with two clutches per year. Not only are these eggs relatively safe due to numbers but the warmth created by the communal habits may help with the incubation. Most of the medium to large skinks tend to be viviparous (live bearing). The small skink Bougainville’s Slider Lerista bougainvillii is unusual in that it gives birth to live young in it’s southern distribution in Tasmania, lays partly calcified eggs which hatch after almost immediately after being laid in southern parts of Victoria and lays eggs in it’s northern distribution in Victoria, NSW and SA.

THE SKINKS

In spring and summer any trip to the bush or in a well vegetated garden on a sunny day will yield a variety of skinks.  A frenzy of activity is usually seen in spring and summer when many species emerge from their dormancy to mate. During this period many skinks develop their breeding colours and often territorial displays are seen between males.

One of the most abundant species encountered in Gippsland is Guichenoti’s (or Garden) Skink Lampropholis guichenoti. This small species is often encountered in large numbers in residential areas (as it’s other common name suggests) and is also found in a wide range of habitats from wet forest to heathland. The similar Delicate Skink Lampropholis delicata is also a very common species and can be found in gardens as well as a range of habitats throughout the region.

Top: Lampropholis guichenoti. Darlimurla, Vic in damp forest.
Bottom: Lampropholis delicata. Yallourn North, Vic in lowland forest.

L. delicata can often be distinguished from L. guichenoti by the lack of prominent flecking and stripes down the length of the back and sides.

Several other small species are similar in appearance to Lampropholis and these include the genera Pseudemoia, Acritoscincus and Niveoscincus and these usually require examining their head scales with a magnifying glass for identification.

Pseudomoia tend to be more common in the alpine areas than the lowlands but one species, the Southern Grass-skink Pseudemoia entrecasteauxii , is also found in areas of grass tussocks and forests of the coastal plain.

The Glossy Grass-skink P. rawlinsoni  is a near threatened species and is becoming increasingly less common throughout it’s range throughout Victoria. This is possibly due to the draining of swamps and other wet areas for development as it tends to inhabit grassy habitats immediately beside wetlands and watercourses. This species does however seem to have at least some resilience as I have found populations in highly degraded areas in the Latrobe Valley. It often has bold stripes and a glossy olive-grey colouration.

Top: Pseudemoia entrecasteauxi. Mirboo North, Vic in damp forest.
Bottom: Pseudemoia rawlinsoni. Yallourn, Vic in highly degraded grassland beside a swamp.

Spencer’s Skink Pseudemoia spenceri is predominantly a highland skink with some populations extending into the more elevated areas of the coastal plain. It has a distinctive mottled appearance and is often found on tree trunks and fallen logs in some alpine areas. Another species with very similar habits and habitats is the Tussock Skink P. pagenstecheri. This species can be very common in suitable habitat and in the breeding season develops a prominent red stripe along it’s side. In snowgum woodland near Lake Tali Karng in the Alpine region I have found this species to be abundant on and around nearly every log and tree stump I saw.

Top: Pseudemoia spenceri eating a beetle. Alpine NP, Vic in open woodland.
Bottom: Pseudemoia pagenstecheri. Alpine NP in open woodland.

One other species of Pseudemoia in Gippsland is the Alpine Bog-skink P. cryodroma, an endangered species which is restricted to the alpine region’s bog swamps.

The Metallic Skink Niveoscincus metallicus is superficially very similar to Pseudemoia, in fact it used to be included in the genus. It requires a magnifying glass to see the frontoparietal scales on the top of the head (fused in Niveoscincus, paired in Pseudemoia) and Metallic Skinks often have a dull orange-pink belly. Although common, this species has a reasonably restricted distribution in Victoria, confined mostly to the west Gippsland coastal plain. It is also found throughout Tasmania. These skinks can be found in a wide range of habitats but in Gippsland I have found this species mostly in and around forests. The other member of this genus in Gippsland is the Snow Skink N. coventryi. This species is confined to wet forests of the alpine region in Gippsland.

Metallic Skink-Niveoscincus metallicus. Mirboo North. Damp forest.

The Weasel Skink Saproscincus mustelinus is a small but highly distinctive species found throughout Gippsland in a range of dry and wet habitats. This skink can easily be identified in the field by it’s prominent white streak behind the eye and a rusty-brown tail. Some individuals have bold stripes running lengthways along their undersides. This species usually lays it’s eggs in a communal nest and I have found up to 30 eggs under the one log.

Weasel Skink- Saproscincus mustelinus and it’s egg clutch. Traralgon South in open forest

If you happen to be wandering amongst coastal and near-coastal vegetation in central and western Gippsland you are likely to come across the Eastern Three-lined Skink Acritoscincus (sometimes listed as Bassianaduperreyi. It is widespread in Gippsland but doesn’t reach the level of abundance as on the coast. This species develops a flush of orange-pink on the throat in the spring breeding season and together with the stripes running the length of the back, sides and tail it can usually be easily identified.

The Red-throated Skink Acritoscincus platynotum is not encountered until you reach east Gippsland and this species usually inhabits dry forest and woodlands. Similar in most respects to P. duperreyi , including reddish throat, but many of the stripes are lacking. The overall body colour is silvery-bronze.

Top: Acritoscincus duperreyi. Golden Beach, Vic in coastal woodland.
Bottom: Acritoscincus platynotum. Snowy River NP in dry woodland.

Bougainville’s Slider Lerista bougainvillii is a species which looks out of portion with its greatly elongated body, tiny legs and a sharp, beak-like snout. This small skink is the only representative in Gippsland of the Australia-wide genus Lerista, a group of reptiles highly modified for living on and under sandy soils. The sharp snout is used similar to a shovel and allows the skink to hunt for insects and other arthropods under the soil surface. Some other species of Lerista have legs so greatly reduced they no longer function. In Gippsland the Bougainville’s Slider is found almost exclusively in sandy coastal and near-coastal soils.

Bougainville’s Slider- Lerista bougainvillii. West of Golden Beach in Banksia woodland.

Maccoy’s Skink Anepischetosia (formerly Nannoscincus) maccoyi is another slender species and is found in wet forests throughout Gippsland. This skink is a very secretive species and I have never seen any basking in sunlight as many reptiles tend to do. Instead it spends it’s time burrowing under sun-warmed leaf litter and other debris hunting for arthropods. Most specimens I’ve found in Gippsland tend to have a vivid lemon-yellow belly and this along with it’s unique shape makes identification very simple.

McCoy’s Skink- Anepischetosia maccoyi. Morwell west in wet forest.

The Copper-tailed Skink Ctenotus taeniolatus is a widely distributed medium-sized skink found throughout south eastern Australia. In Gippsland you are likely to encounter it in the north-eastern high country and neighbouring plains, particularly in the drier woodlands.  This strikingly patterned species is boldly striped and has a brown or coppery coloured tail. As with a lot of Ctenotus skinks in Australia it has long back legs and toes to enable it to move swiftly from predators and to hunt (it can be a pain to photograph!)

Copper tailed Skink- Ctenotus taeniolatus. Snowy River NP in open woodland

Egernia is a genus which includes some medium-sized to large skinks. One species which is relatively common in Gippsland is the Black Rock Skink Egernia saxatilis. The common name for this species is often a misnomer as it not only inhabits rocky areas but frequents logs and tree trunks, particularly ones with a large number of crevices and holes. I have seen this species basking in the sun at the top of a 20 metre high dead ‘stag’ tree above a forest canopy. Black Rock Skinks are highly inquisitive and when frightened will often re-emerge within a minute or so in a different place but still in full view.

Black Rock Skink- Egernia saxatilis. West of Morwell in lowland forest.

The threatened Swamp Skink Lissolepis coventryi is a highly secretive species which inhabits the vegetation along the margins of swamps and other wetlands. Due to extensive clearing and drainage of its habitat for farming and development as well a predation by cats and foxes this species has experienced a massive decline in numbers. Isolated populations exist throughout southern Victoria and Gippsland and I’ve just recently been able to get half decent photographs of this species.

Swamp Skink- Lissolepis coventryi. Lower Powlett River in swamp scrub.

Swamp Skink- Lissolepis coventryi. Lower Powlett River in swamp scrub.

White’s Skink Liopholis whitii is one of the most spectacular skinks found in Gippsland and either comes in two colour forms, the spotted (as in the photograph below) or the plain form (this is where the spotting is greatly reduced). White’s Skink, as with most larger skinks, gives birth to live young and these adults dig a short burrow to protect themselves and their young. These are found in a wide variety of habitats from forests to heathland.

White’s Skink- Liopholis whitii (spotted form). Hernes Oak, Vic in heathy woodland.
Inset: White’s Skink burrow

Two common species of Water Skinks are found in Gippsland and another two are restricted in distribution. The name Water Skink is often a misnomer as it is frequently found a long distance from any major water source. That said, they can be reasonably common around bodies of water and I have seen these species often diving into water when threatened and swimming quite well.

In western Gippsland you are most likely to come across the Southern Water Skink Eulamprus tympanum and in the east Yellow-bellied Water Skink E. heatwolei. Both these species are widespread in a variety of habitats from forests to heathland. An easy way to determine the species in the field is E. tympanum has a broad dark brown line starting from behind the eye and extending along the flanks. E. heatwolei has this line start from the side of the face at the nostrils. E. heatwolei can also have a cream-yellow belly whereas E. tympanum is white.

Top: Eulamprus tympanum. Yallourn North in lowland forest.
Bottom: Eulamprus heatwolei. Lake Tali Karng, Vic

Two of the most familiar skinks in Gippsland are the Blotched Blue-tongue Tiliqua nigrolutea and the Eastern Blue-tongue T. scincoides. These are the largest of Gippsland’s skinks and can be found in nearly every habitat, including people’s backyards.

Blotched Blue-tongues can vary from light brown with pale blotches, especially lowland forms, to darker brown with orange-pink blotches in the alpine region. I have seen individuals which are a vivid rusty colour in the foothills north of Bairnsdale.

Blotched Blue Tongue- Tiliqua nigrolutea. Yallourn North, Vic in lowland forest.

Eastern Blue-tongues don’t seem to be as common in Gippsland as ‘Blotchies’ but you do come across them occasionally, especially in forest. This is identified by the lack of blotching on the upper surface and the presence of a dark stripe (often broken) behind the eye.

Eastern Blue Tongue- Tiliqua scincoides. West of Morwell in lowland forest.

Although Gippsland doesn’t have the diversity of reptiles as in other parts of Victoria such as the far north west it does have a fantastic array of unique skinks. In future blogs I might do a piece on Gippsland’s other reptiles.

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