Lerista skink Lerista punctatovittata. Bendidee SF, QLD, image Steve Wilson.

The genus Lerista is the 2nd most speciose group of Australian skinks with 100 species currently described. These skinks display an extraordinary diversity of limb morphology, ranging from the classic tetrapod pattern (four limbs, each with 5 digits) to being completely limbless and every combination in between. As a result, Lerista have featured prominently in research on the evolution of limb reduction and digit loss.

Preliminary work by Queensland Museum Network scientists revealed the unexpected presence of remarkable genetic diversity within two existing ‘species’.  These results revealed eight divergent lineages within L. punctatovittata; a widely distributed species occurring in semi-arid habitats across four states (Qld, NSW, Vic and SA) with six of these lineages found exclusively in Queensland, including two at the same locality. A further three to four divergent lineages were discovered within L. zonulata, a species occurring in Queensland’s Einasleigh Uplands and Cape York Peninsula bioregions.

Research aim

This project will investigate the taxonomic significance of these diverse genetic lineages within L. punctatovittata and L. zonulata to see if they represent new species.

Research outcomes

This research will include samples from existing Australian collection material and targeted Queensland field surveys. Due of the physical similarity of the animals representing these lineages, we will combine cutting edge genome-wide sampling technology with traditional morphological (physical characters) analyses to help resolve and accurately determine species boundaries. Many of these potential new species are likely to have narrow range distributions, therefore, the approach will provide the necessary framework for assessing their conservation priorities.

Dr Jessica Worthington Wilmer (Queensland Museum Network geneticist) will lead the project along with her colleagues Dr Andrew Amey and Mr Patrick Couper (Queensland Museum Network’s herpetology experts).

The research is funded by an ABRS (Australian Biological Resources Study) research grant with matching funding from Project DIG.