Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Raising a skink, or two, at CFB Shilo

Endangered lizard confounds researchers

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CFB SHILO -- Manitoba's only lizard, the endangered Prairie skink, has found a safe place to call home -- the training range at CFB Shilo.

And while the grassland at the base provides ample camouflage for the lizards, they can't escape being the subjects of crucial research into their natural habitat.

Around Onah railway station in the northern area of the range lives the most robust population of the elusive skinks, with more than 200 of them burrowing near the tracks. Throughout the base are clusters of 30 to 70 skinks.

The question plaguing researchers is what makes the area skink-friendly.

"The Prairie has never been tilled here, it's the same as if we never came," said Sherry Punak-Murphy, base biologist. "But we don't really know their natural habitat."

And this is a concern as encroaching aspen from Spruce Woods threatens to harm the Prairie grassland skinks call home.

University of Manitoba graduate student Shane Pratt hopes his ground-breaking tracking project will uncover their habitat mystery.

Having worked with Komodo dragons in Indonesia and crocodiles in Australia, the Ontario herpetologist wanted to do something innovative with reptiles on home soil.

Supervised by longtime skink researcher Pamela Rutherford from Brandon University, Pratt checks the Onah Station for skinks that have crawled under artificial coverings set up years before. Carpet, tile, wood, metal and plywood are all comforting for the small critters and Pratt said they tend to like hardwood the most.

Naturalists have monitored skinks in the area for years, but Errol Bredin worked to have the lizards recognized as a threatened species. After years of informal study, Bredin left a legacy of skink observations.

Students from Brandon University and the University of Manitoba spend hot summer days monitoring the fragile lizards' behaviour.

On a hot, dry morning, Pratt and fellow U of M research student Thierry Lavoie head out into the tall grass at Onah Station to find skinks large enough to have radio transmitters attached to them. "This tracking stuff has never been done before," Pratt said. "We also have no record of them moving more than 10 metres."

Skinks upwards of eight grams can be fitted with the tiny technology.

Searching the field with a large antenna and working with incoming signals, Pratt follows a male skink and Lavoie grabs the lizard. After making judgments on its path, the researchers are pleased.

"He's not undercover, which is exactly what I want," Pratt said. "He's also moved more than 10 metres. That's huge right now."

Twenty skinks will be tracked for the rest of summer.

 

-- Brandon Sun

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2012 A7

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