Small patches of burnt habitat thought to improve skinks’ chance of survival

Fauna surveys in the western deserts have found burrows of a vulnerable skink species in areas where small patch burns have occurred,  suggesting that traditional owner burning to hunt and ‘clean up country’ close to the communities is helping to protect the species.

The survey work has been undertaken as part of the ‘Desert Rangelands Project’ funded by Rangelands NRM to record the presence of native species including the Martu-named Mulyamiji (Liopholis kintorei or great desert skink).

Alison McGilvray, Desert Rangelands Conservation Officer from the Department of Environment and Conservation, said the Mulyamiji is listed as vulnerable under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and as Schedule 1 – Fauna that is rare or likely to become extinct under the WA Wildlife Conservation Act 1950.

Mulyamiji once lived throughout about 20 per cent of the landmass of continental Australia but now only persist in parts of the Tanami, Great Victoria, Gibson, Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts in WA, South Australia and the Northern Territory. 

“Some Mulyamiji are still found in WA’s western deserts, and they have been recorded by traditional owners through the Desert Rangelands Project on the Martu native title determination,” Ms McGilvray said.

“They were, and still are in some places, an important food source for Aboriginal people.”

Ms McGilvray said altered fire regimes since the arrival of Europeans and the movement of Aboriginal people away from country into settlements in the 1950s and 1960s has had a tremendous impact on the fire patterns across the desert landscape.

“The loss of small pockets of vegetation of different ages, and over time, the increase in large, intensive bushfires is one of the key causes for the decline of Mulyamiji,” Ms McGilvray said.

“These large fires significantly reduce food resources and cover from predators, compounding the effect of predation by fox, cat and dingo on the skink.”

In 2012 surveys, Mulyamiji were found in only three plots being monitored by traditional owners (two per cent of the total number of plots on Birriliburu, Martu, Ngurrurpa, Pilki, Spinifex and Yilka native title areas). Two active burrow systems and one old burrow were recorded.

“The plots were located on sand plains near Jigalong, Parnngurr and Punmu communities. The country at two plots had been burnt in the previous two years, and the other was burnt between 11 and 40 years ago,” Ms McGilvray said.

These findings are consistent with recordings of Mulyamiji from other areas where burrows are usually found in areas that have been burnt in the last 3-15 years.

“It is thought that small patches of recently burnt habitat improve the chance of successful reproduction and the movement of young adults into new burrow systems,” Ms McGilvray said.

“Whilst we don’t have many plots a significant distance from communities to compare occurrence close to communities and far away, these results suggest that traditional owner burning to hunt and ‘clean up country’ close to the communities is helping to protect the Mulyamiji.” 

Ms McGilvray said it is critical for animals like the Mulyamiji that we further understand and encourage traditional burning, instructed by the Elders, and for younger people to learn the traditional practices that help these threatened animals to survive.

More info about the Great Desert Skink or Mulyamiji:

Mulyamiji grow to about 44cm from the snout to the tip of their tail, and weigh about 350g. They generally occur in spinifex grassland sand plains and some nearby dune-fields and live communally in burrow systems of up to ten metres in diameter and one metre deep, with multiple entrances. Mulyamiji share a toilet area, which forms distinctive large latrine areas near their burrows.  The parents share the burrow system with their juvenile offspring, who leave home in their second year in search of a mate.

The Great Desert Skink is named Mulyamiji by Martu traditional owners because of their red nose.

Photo Caption: Mulyamiji found by the ladies from Punmu near the community (©A.McGilvray)