Stephen Peck’s eyes light up when you say the word “yakka”.
- The yakka skink is an endemic reptile of Queensland
- Their unusual family group behavior caught the attention of a USQ doctoral student
- Yakka skinks are listed as “vulnerable”
Mention the unusual name ER 181, and his smile widens as his dark brown eyes grow considerably brighter.
ER 181 is Mr. Peck’s favorite.
“It’s a love story like no other,” he says.
“Not the sexiest name. ER refers to the species, Egernia rugosaand I first recorded it in January 2009, but to me it’s the cutest, sexiest reptile in the world.”
A PhD student at the University of Southern Queensland, Mr Peck has been studying the endangered yakka skink in the mulga lands surrounding Charleville in western Queensland since 2008.
Over the past 14 years, he has monitored up to 40 sites in preferred yakka habitat.
The skinks are meticulously measured, photographed, weighed and the information placed in detailed profile books by Mr. Peck.
For this remarkable member of the lizard family, this vital information is a database to save another endangered Australian reptile.
Yakkas are different
Yakkas are not like many other reptiles.
They live in family groups, have a common pile of excrement, and on the creamy throat of each yakka there are black spots, no skink has the same markings.
Yakka skinks can have two eye colors – red or brown – but the reason for this unusual trait remains unclear.
“I wish it were as simple as sexual dimorphism, but unfortunately it’s not,” Peck said, referring to the condition in which a species’ sex determines whether it has a specific attribute.
Docile lizards are perfectly camouflaged for their chosen environment.
The colorations range from pale brown to dark brown, depending on soil coloration, leaf litter, and general environment.
At up to 40 centimeters long, they are not tiny garden skinks – they are about the size of a blue-tongued lizard.
The yakka shares two characteristics with all skinks: it stores energy, or fat, in its tail and has the ability to drop its tail when threatened, before it heals and regrows.
Why are the yakkas threatened?
Yakkas are thought to live for up to 30 years and are “site dependent, which means if the site is disturbed they won’t move”, Mr Peck said.
ER 181, the love of Mr Peck, he reckons, could be 19 after he first recorded it in January 2009.
“They love an old log pile, abandoned rabbit holes, and I often hear stories from landowners saying they have this big lizard living under their mowing shed.”
There are a number of causes for the yakka’s decline, which has seen it become vulnerable.
Although habitat loss is a major factor, predation by foxes and feral cats plays high on the list.
“Cats and foxes have a keen sense of smell, and yakkas are creatures of habit. The smell of communal latrines attracts wild predators who quickly learn to wait and pounce.”
Mr Peck said he regularly sees wildlife strikes, both on tracks around his sites and on night vision cameras.
The future of the yakka
As yakkas bask in the sun, clinging to the last fragments of brigalow and mulga to survive in outback Queensland, Mr Peck strikes a positive note.
“It’s been a crazy growing season, with some up to 20 millimeters taller than typical growth patterns,” he said.
According to Peck, as more people are educated and informed about how to recognize and protect the “sexy” reptile, there is always hope.