Every species has a unique story that deserves to be told. As an organization dedicated to all wildlife and the wild places they call home, we have access to what is ultimately the library of living things. And of course, we love sharing these incredible stories with you! 

Today, we’re sharing the remarkable story of the cobble skink; a project we’re immensely proud to be part of and one we know fellow Kiwis will love! While they may only be 12cm in length and weigh no more than a teaspoon of sugar (around 5 grams) a huge amount of work has gone into protecting and preserving this tiny native lizard. Over the years, the cobble skink as a species has endured a great deal of hardship and change, but thanks to Auckland Zoo and its partners, we’re hopeful that this skink will be brought back from the brink!

Very little is known about the cobble skink. It was only in 2007 that the species was officially discovered when NZ reptile expert Tony Jewell noticed that the little lizards moving amongst the cobblestones off a west-coast beach boasted characteristics he’d never seen before. For one, while they bore similarities to the more common speckled skink, they were smaller in size yet had larger eyes – perhaps an adaptation to help them see when wriggling amongst the rocks!

Over the years that followed, conservationists began referring to the skinks as cobble skinks, aptly named for their chosen habitat. Eight years passed, and it was only when the results of two surveys, one in 2015 and 2016, when Jewell counted roughly 30 cobble skinks left, that alarm bells began to sound. During this time, Jewell also noted how rising sea levels and erosion was causing the rapid destruction of the skinks’ coastal cobble habitat. 

To prevent cobble skink extinction, DOC responded proactively and decided to move the skinks to Auckland Zoo to give the native species a second chance at survival. Shortly after their move, their coastal habitat was devastated by Cyclone Gita.

When the 36 skinks arrived here at Auckland Zoo, our ectotherm team and head of life sciences, Richard Gibson, had a challenge on their hands: how to look after a species they knew so little about. 

The team built specialised off-display habitats that would encourage natural behaviours and give keepers a chance to observe the skinks up close. This way, they could learn about their behaviours and discover what worked best for them to survive and thrive.

Four babies were born at the zoo to mothers who arrived pregnant, bringing the world total to 40, and suggesting that we were certainly on the right track.

Three years later, after considerable investment in new climate-controlled indoor and extensive outdoor facilities, and careful observation of the skinks to understand their social preferences (pairs don’t seem to get on very well for long!), we welcomed earlier this year, an additional 21 cobble skinks to the Auckland Zoo family! This is more than fantastic news, its species-saving news, as it represents a 50 percent increase to the entire cobble skink population! These results also confirm that our staff have worked out what it takes for successful breeding and survival of cobble skinks.

Just a few weeks ago, our team passed on this know-how to Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger, Kate Simister.

Kate came and spent three days with the ectotherm team and cobble skinks to learn as much as she could about these little lizards in preparation for transferring a small number of the cobble skink population back down south to a specially built facility. The facility was designed by Auckland Zoo’s head of life sciences Richard Gibson, and is located just one hour away from where the cobble skinks were originally found. It is outdoor and close to the coast to provide them with their natural climate. The predator-proof lizard habitat is divided into ten sections and will be able to house a comparatively large number of cobble skinks, perhaps a few hundred, and come complete with deep cobble stones for the skinks to wriggle between!

As Kate and the team learn as much as they can about the skinks’ behaviours and social interactions, and the habitat we’ve created is successfully ‘tested’, additional cobble skinks will be transferred from Auckland Zoo. This will go on until the majority are back on the West Coast in this halfway-house while we work out how to get them back into the wild!

When asked what she thought of Auckland Zoo’s work with the cobble skink, Kate was overwhelmed with the team’s enthusiasm for the species and the work they are doing.

“They absolutely love the work they’re doing and the animals they work with - whether big or small - and they’re always ready to help. The team has been there from the start and will continue to help DOC when the skinks move to the new facility as their wealth of knowledge is so valuable.”

Kate explains that the end goal is to release cobble skinks back into the wild, but first, further breeding and finding a suitable home is top priority! 

We’re immensely proud of how far the cobble skinks have come and are thrilled that we’ve been able to put our zoo-skills to work out in the wild to help an endemic species in need. Every time you visit the zoo or donate to our Conservation Fund, you’re helping us continue work like this for lizards and other wildlife throughout Aotearoa – and abroad.


Keeper Chat - Emily tells us about New Zealand's cobble skinks!