Putting reptiles on the map: ZSL Science for reptilian conservation

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Dr Monika Böhm and Rikki Gumbs summarise global reptile conservation efforts ahead of their upcoming Science and Conservation event next Tuesday, 8 December.

The Critically Endangered gharial is now restricted to a handful of fragmented populations in India and Nepal © Rikki Gumbs
The Critically Endangered gharial is now restricted to a handful of fragmented populations in India and Nepal © Rikki Gumbs

Reptiles as we know them are the world’s lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodilians – a truly remarkable group of organisms: species rich, they have made themselves at home in terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments, with some species occupying the hottest environments on the planet, while others have adapted to cold, montane habitats. From real-life “dragons” to bum-breathing turtles and venomous snakes, reptiles never cease to amaze.

Reptiles comprise almost one third of all land vertebrate species on Earth but, until recently, they have been underrepresented in conservation research and action compared to mammals, birds and amphibians. For example, in 2010, when the global community had failed to reach the biodiversity target of achieving a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss, we didn’t even know whether reptiles were significantly impacted by anthropogenic threats or not. Due to the completion of comprehensive IUCN Red List of Threatened Species assessments for all birds, mammals and amphibians however, we knew about levels of extinction risk in these terrestrial vertebrate groups.

The Mary River Turtle can often be found sporting a green mohawk of algae. This threatened turtle can remain submerged for days at a time, breathing through gill-like organs situated within its genitalia © Chris Van Wyk
The Mary River Turtle can often be found sporting a green mohawk of algae. This threatened turtle can remain submerged for days at a time, breathing through gill-like organs situated within its genitalia © Chris Van Wyk

Similarly, due to phylogenetic advances which had led to detailed trees of life for amphibians, mammals, and birds, ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme was able to combine metrics of evolutionary history with IUCN Red List status to define EDGE Lists for conservation prioritisation. The first EDGE List, for mammals, was created in 2007, followed closely by amphibians in 2008 and birds in 2014. With the relevant data missing for reptiles, this species group was again lagging behind in conservation focus.

Yet over the past decade, reptiles have slowly slithered, waddled, scuttled and leapt into the conservation spotlight, and researchers at ZSL have led efforts to improve our understanding of the threats to the reptilian Tree of Life. As part of ZSL’s sampled Red List Index (SRLI) project, a team of over 200 reptile experts highlighted the conservation status of this extraordinary group of species, showing that just under one in five reptile species are threatened with extinction. Worryingly, efforts to estimate the human impact on the reptilian Tree of Life suggest we face the loss of staggering amounts of reptilian evolutionary history. To combat this, ZSL has created the first EDGE List for the world’s reptiles, identifying the most evolutionarily unique and threatened crocodilians, turtles, lizards and snakes for conservation action, and has begun implementing conservation action on the ground to save many of these irreplaceable species. 

Lyriocephalus scutatus © Ruchira Somaweera
Lyriocephalus scutatus © Ruchira Somaweera

Along with this network of herpetologists, additional conservation research on reptiles has continued to emerge, highlighting the fate of snakes and lizards across the globe. Some of this research was led by ZSL, while to other projects, ZSL contributed its growing reptile knowledge; and many more projects emerge that we are simply cheering on as great contributions to our global reptile conservation efforts. 

The Tokashiki gecko is endemic to a small Japanese island and is threatened with extinction

In 2020, the global conservation community again was starkly reminded of its failure to meet the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (though some have been partially met at least). So while there is not much to celebrate, over the past decade reptiles have definitely made it into the conservation spotlight.

Join us on 8 December for a free online Science and Conservation Event celebrating some of these reptile achievements, from conservation assessments and biodiversity indicators for reptiles, to conservation action for highly threatened turtles and our continued effort to save the weird and wonderful reptile species around the world. 


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