Wednesday, August 23, 2017 12:27 am Last modified: 12:20 am

Skinks Under Review for Endangered Species List

Four species of skinks found in the U.S. Virgin Islands and three found in Puerto Rico are on the list for more intensive review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if they’ll make the endangered or threatened species list, the agency announced this week.

To help the agency decide, it’s asking for input from people familiar with the tiny lizards that live in the territories.

Those found in the Virgin Islands are the greater Saint Croix skink, the greater Virgin Islands skink, the lesser St. Croix skink, and the Virgin Islands bronze skink. The three from Puerto Rico are the Mona skink, the Puerto Rican skink and the Culebra skink.

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Skinks are reptiles with a penchant for burrowing. Caribbean skinks, which can grow to be about 8 inches long, are unique among reptiles in having reproductive systems most like humans, including a placenta and live birth. They have cylindrical bodies, and most have ill-defined necks that, together with their sinuous movements and smooth, bronze-colored skin, make them look like stubby snakes.

The skinks included in the Fish and Wildlife announcement, along with dozens of others, were first identified by scientists in a 2012 study. The scientists initiated their study after finding unusually large genetic differences among populations of skinks on different islands in the Caribbean. All of the newly identified endemic Caribbean skinks are near extinction or already extinct due to introduced predators like mongooses and cats, as well as large-scale habitat destruction for development and agriculture.

The skinks got this far on the Fish and Wildlife scrutiny list thanks to efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity. It filed a petition in 2014 claiming that these rare lizards are on the “knife’s edge” of extinction.

“The Endangered Species Act can save these skinks,” Collette Adkins, a Center biologist and lawyer who works to protect reptiles and amphibians, said in a press release. “We can best deal with the habitat loss and invasive predators that threaten to wipe out these skinks by getting them protected under the act. This announcement means they’re one step closer to getting the protections they need.”

The center petitioned for these seven skinks and two others in 2014. The two others are the Monito skink found on Puerto Rico’s Monito Island and Lesser Virgin Islands skink found on St. Thomas and two adjacent islets as well as several British Virgin Islands.

The organization was joined in its petition for the nine skinks by Renata Platenberg, an ecologist specializing in Caribbean reptiles.

Platenberg, who is an assistant professor of natural resource management at the University of the Virgin Islands, could not be reached for further comment.

Blair Hedges of Temple University, the lead author of the 2012 study that first recognized the skinks, said they need to be protected before it’s too late.

“The Caribbean is home to extremely rare animals found nowhere else in the world, but too many are threatened with extinction,” Hedges said.

According to the center’s press release, the reptiles have been around for hundreds of millions of years and survived every major extinction period, but now, due largely to human impact, they’re dying off at up to 10,000 times the historic extinction rate.

About 20 percent of reptiles in the world are endangered or vulnerable to extinction. Within the Caribbean, scientists estimate that reptiles have levels of endangerment that are at or near the highest levels worldwide.

Fish and Wildlife’s findings are the first in a series of required decisions on the petition and simply required the agency to determine whether the petition presented sufficient information to warrant further consideration, a process that requires few agency resources. The next step is a full status review of the species by Fish and Wildlife.

For more details on the petitions and Fish and Wildlife’s current analysis of each of these species, visit www.fws.gov/southeast/candidateconservation/jan-2016-batch.

Organizations or individuals that wish to present scientific and/or commercial information on the seven skinks should contact Andreas Moshogianis at 404-679-7119 or andreas_moshogianis@fws.gov.

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