ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached an agreement today that requires the Service to make endangered species decisions for eight rare species of skink — a type of lizard — by Dec. 12, 2024.The skinks are found only on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and face extinction because of introduced predators, habitat destruction and climate change.
“Help is on the horizon for the rapidly vanishing lizards of the Caribbean islands,” said Elise Bennett, a Center attorney. “Rampant development and predators introduced by people have driven these fascinating skinks to the brink of extinction. And they face rising seas and storms of increasing intensity in the future. Endangered Species Act protection is the best chance we have to save them from the mounting threats to their survival.”
Today’s legal agreement follows the Center’s 2020 lawsuit challenging the Service’s failure to make timely Endangered Species determinations for the species. The findings are more than six years overdue.
Two of the skinks, the lesser Virgin Islands skink (Spondylurus semitaeniatus) and Virgin Islands bronze skink (S. sloanii), as well as the endangered Virgin Islands tree boa (Chilabothrus granti), are believed to occur on Great St. James. Jeffrey Epstein purchased the island in 2016 to construct a sprawling compound with two homes, cottages and various other buildings connected by private roads.
In addition to habitat destruction and threats from non-native predators like cats, mongoose and rats, climate change is causing sea-level rise and extreme storm events like the deadly Category 5 Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, which damaged the limited habitat of these entirely island-dwelling species. As many of the skink’s islands are small and low in elevation, they are particularly vulnerable.
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 with legs.
Scientists identified the skinks as separate species in a 2012 study. All are considered critically endangered or endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and they are absent or extremely rare across most of their former ranges.
The Center petitioned to protect the skinks in 2014 with Dr. Renata Platenberg, an ecologist specializing in Caribbean reptiles.
Three of the species included in today’s notice are found within the territory of Puerto Rico: the Culebra skink (Culebra and the adjacent islet of Culebrita), Mona skink (Mona Island) and Puerto Rican skink (Puerto Rico and several of its satellite islands). The remaining five are found in the Virgin Islands: the greater St. Croix skink (St. Croix and its satellite Green Cay), lesser St. Croix skink (St. Croix), greater Virgin Islands skink (St. John and St. Thomas), Virgin Islands bronze skink (St. Thomas and several of its islets, several British Virgin Islands) and lesser Virgin Islands skink (St. Thomas and two adjacent islets, several British Virgin Islands).
Main image credit : A. J. Meier