A great desert skinks popping out of its burrow. Photo by: Adam Stow, Macquarie University.
Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia have discovered that the threatened great desert burrowing skink lizard forms stable families that construct and maintain elaborate underground homes, reports ABC News. This is the first lizard in the world known to practice such familial behavior.
Native to central Australia, researchers are conducting studies on the great desert skink (Liopholis kintorei) at Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park, where rangers monitor the threatened species. Over 5,000 species of lizard have been documented globally, but only the Uluru skinks live together in immediate and social families that invest in the construction of long-lasting homes.
Adult Uluru skinks pair for consecutive years and may raise several generations in a single burrow constructed by the parents. Not unlike humans, multiple generations of skinks live in the shared home, with parents and children contributing to the maintenance and expansion of their home. The burrows are up to thirteen meters in length, have twenty entrances, and contain designated latrines. Researcher found that skink families inhabited them for up to 7 years straight.
DNA testing of Uluru skinks reveals that young lizards sharing the same burrow are nearly all full siblings, who delay leaving the burrow to care for the family home.
According to Macquarie University researcher Dr. Adam Stow this cooperative living arrangement is remarkable for lizards: “It’s an unusual case of parental care and also having the siblings cooperate [that] make[s] them possibly the word’s most social lizard.”
The DNA results also confirm local knowledge of the lizard from the Anango Aboriginal people. They told researchers that Uluru skink males dig elaborate burrows, leave to find steady mates, then return to the burrow to raise cooperative and social families. The family continues to improve the homestead to benefit younger siblings, and parents largely remain faithful.
“For adults to invest so much in a home within which kids mature, it makes evolutionary sense that these adult individuals are sure that they are providing for their own offspring,” Stow explains.
Researchers are not done with this unusual species, as they believe the great desert skink will continue to provide insight into the evolution of family groups. In research that may hold relevance for the human species, scientists are identifying skink siblings who fail to take responsibility for home tasks in order to understand how other family members manage their lazy relatives.
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