Two clutches of critically endangered Bermudian Skink have hatched at Chester Zoo, the first time conservationists have succeeded in breeding the species outside of its homeland.
The tiny rock lizards, which grow to around three inches long, are a much-loved symbol of the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda and an important part of the ecosystem.
Yet the species is on the brink of extinction in the wild, as habitat destruction and introduced predators have almost wiped them out.
In a last gasp attempt to prevent the species being lost forever, the Bermudian government called on experts at Chester Zoo to help breed the species in Britain.
Now, after three years of work by conservationists and 43 days of incubation, seven skinks have hatched, a major milestone in the fight to save the animal from extinction.
Dr Gerardo Garcia, Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates at Chester Zoo, said he jumped for joy when the first lizard hatched.
“Receiving a few skinks from a population that was estimated to be just 1,500 individuals is an enormous responsibility that you take very serious.
“Conservation is critical and breeding these skinks is a momentous event.
“Not only is it providing us with vital new data which will help to inform future decisions in terms of protecting the species, it will engage future generations with these fascinating animals too.
“It has taken years of work, both out in Bermuda and here in our zoo breeding facilities, but to finally hatch these clutches of Bermudian skinks is magnificent news.”
The conservation programme was tricky because nobody had attempted to breed the skinks before so there were no guidelines on even how to identify males from females. Their mating behaviour can also be violent, leading to some animals losing their toes from bites.
“When we put them on pairs for breeding this season we immediately found elements of fight between them and that could be the normal male/female interaction or something more serious if we selected two males,” added Dr Garcia.
“So that was very stressful finding a balance between leave the nature going and be very intrusive with the manipulation of individuals.”
The team spent many hours carefully observing the lizards and created a special home which mirrored hot, humid environment of the Bermuda shoreline where the skinks live in the wild.