New Book Release! Rocky Outcrops in Australia: Ecology, Conservation and Management.

Damian Michael

Growing up in Victoria, I spent many weekends camping, hiking and rock-climbing in spectacular places like the Arapiles, Cathedral Ranges, Mount Buffalo and the You Yangs. However, some of my earliest memories stem from England (where I was born) and involve catching newts in our pond, and chasing common lizards into their burrows. On moving to Australia, my childhood memories were similarly filled with images of inquisitive creatures peering out from dark rock crevices, or catching fleeting glimpses of small lizards nervously scuttling across exposed rock faces, all while I fumbled about looking for a trustworthy crag to anchor my climbing gear.

View across Mount Buffalo from the Cathedral - Hump summit. The large granite tors are popular with bushwalkers and rock climbers.

View across Mount Buffalo from the Cathedral - Hump summit. The large granite tors are popular with bushwalkers and rock climbers.

Little did I know these early experiences with nature would trigger a life-long passion for exploring rocky wonderlands and studying the creatures that call them home. Reptiles are truly fascinating animals, as many of you will attest, so I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to study them for the past 20 years (and many more to come).

One of the Conservation and Landscape Ecology Group’s key research interests is to understand reptile habitat-relationships and to quantify the ecological roles of small island-like rocky outcrops in human-modified landscapes. In many agricultural regions, historical land clearing has left rocky outcrops exposed, isolated, surrounded by secondary grasslands and cereal crops, infested with weeds and feral animals, and generally in extremely poor and degraded conditions.

Ø Many insular granite outcrops in agricultural landscapes are cleared of native vegetation and harbor invasive weeds and feral animals.

Ø Many insular granite outcrops in agricultural landscapes are cleared of native vegetation and harbor invasive weeds and feral animals.

Invasive woody weeds, soil erosion and nitrification, introduced rabbits and goats, inappropriate fire regimes, logging, quarrying and illegal bushrock removal have dramatically altered these systems to such a degree that it will take a huge amount of time and resources to restore these fragile environments back to a functional and healthy state. But, it can be done, and in some regions, it is being done by groups of dedicated landholders and Landcare groups

A good example of a rocky outcrop that has been excluded from land clearing and heavy grazing which has allowed native trees and shrubs to regenerate.

A good example of a rocky outcrop that has been excluded from land clearing and heavy grazing which has allowed native trees and shrubs to regenerate.

Part of the reason why we decided to write a book on rocky outcrops was because there are significant biodiversity and productivity benefits to be gained from protecting and restoring these environments. By fencing them out, excluding or managing livestock and feral herbivore grazing pressure, native vegetation has the potential to regenerate; soil erosion can be mitigated, and biodiversity has the opportunity to return back to the hills.

Increased biodiversity is definitely one positive outcome, but there are economic benefits to landholders and the wider community as well. For example, reducing soil erosion and increasing grass cover around rocky outcrops has direct farm productivity benefits. Large rocky outcrops often support rock holes (gnammas), moss beds and natural springs, areas which retain moisture and slowly release it back into the surrounding environment long after a rain event. Hard-hooved animals such as sheep, cattle, pigs, goats, deer and horses can severely damage and pollute these sensitive areas. The increase in native birds and insects that return to a regenerating outcrop also contribute to controlling agricultural pests and pollinating crops. Rare and allusive pythons also occupy large rocky outcrops. These top predators venture into farmland during the warm months of the year to prey on introduced mice, rats and rabbits. Clearly there is much to be gained by restoring rocky outcrops and linking them back up with other landscape features.

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Our latest book aims to introduce the many benefits of preserving and restoring natural geological formations in Australia. It includes chapters on why rocky outcrops are important from an ecological and cultural perspective, what types of animals are dependent on rocky outcrops for their survival, what are the main threats to rocky areas in different parts of Australia, and how they can be better managed to improve biodiversity and productivity outcomes. The book also highlights recent studies on rock-dependent reptiles by some of Australia’s leading researchers.

Rocky Outcrops in Australia is beautifully illustrated and features outstanding images by some of Australia’s most talented nature photographers. The book should appeal to a broad range of audiences from naturalists, natural resource management agencies, Landcare groups and private landholders. Copies of the book can be ordered through the CSIRO Publishing website, or by clicking on this link.


Michael, D.R., Cunningham, R.B. and Lindenmayer, D.B. (2008) A forgotten habitat? Granite inselbergs conserve reptile diversity in fragmented agricultural landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology 45, 1742-1752.

Michael, D.R., Lindenmayer, D.B. and Cunningham, R.B. (2010) Managing rock outcrops to improve biodiversity conservation in Australian agricultural landscapes. Ecological Management and Restoration 11(1), 43-50.

Restoration, revegetation and reptiles in rural landscapes: insights from long-term monitoring.

Damian Michael

Conducting research on reptile communities in rural landscapes is a challenge. This is because many species are rare, occur patchily in the landscape and are active at different times of the day. The ability to detect different species is also influenced by temperature and humidity. Livestock can also restrict the use of traditional survey methods such as pitfall traps, funnels and fences. Instead, we rely on using artificial substrates and actively searching for reptiles in leaf litter, grass tussocks or beneath bark, logs and rocks – a difficult task as most species don’t want to be found! However, after nearly two decades of recording and observing lizards on farms, we have a few important insights to share. 

#1. In any given region, two or three species account for almost 80% of all reptile observations. Is this a reflection of historical widespread declines in reptile populations we wonder? The most common lizard species we encounter are Boulenger’s Skink Morethia boulengeri and the Ragged Snake-eyed Skink Cryptoblepharus pannosus. Both species being more abundant in areas with lots of fallen timber and dead standing trees. Some species are naturally rare across their geographical range, but locally common where suitable habitat exists. We often discover small aggregations of geckos or legless lizards occupying rocky knolls no larger than 1 ha. Common species play important ecological roles and are prey for other reptiles, carnivorous marsupials and a host of bird species. The lesson here is to keep common lizards common by protecting their habitats, no matter how small the area is.

Boulenger’s Skink  Morethia boulengeri

Boulenger’s Skink Morethia boulengeri

If a management objective is to maintain maximum reptile diversity, rocky outcrops, paddocks of bushrock and old growth remnants need more formal protection.

#2. Reptile diversity is highest in areas that support rocky outcrops, old growth vegetation and intact ground cover. Places that have never been cleared, cropped or fertilised often support more rare and threatened species, particularly reptiles that use surface rocks, soil cracks and invertebrate tunnels such as the Nationally Vulnerable Pink-tailed Worm-lizard Aprasia parapulchella. Large rocky outcrops can support three times more reptile species than a patch of remnant vegetation of similar size, and old vegetation often supports more species than regrowth or revegetated areas. That’s not to say that natural regrowth or revegetation projects aren’t important, but if a management objective is to maintain maximum reptile diversity, rocky outcrops, paddocks of bushrock and old growth remnants need more formal protection.

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#3. Revegetation projects support many different reptile species. However, most reptiles we found using 10 – 30 year old tree plantings tend to be widespread generalists, species that live in open grasslands, or wide ranging species capable of moving through farming landscapes (e.g. blue-tongue lizards and brown snakes). We have found more reptile species using revegetated areas if they are excluded from livestock grazing, support native grasses, provide both sunny and shady areas, and include dead trees, fallen timber and bushrock. Designing an ecological tree planting for reptiles may look very different to a planting designed to encourage small woodland birds back into the landscape.

#4. Grazing landscapes can support a wide variety of reptile species. Several studies have found that the number and composition of reptile species in grazing landscapes compared to ungrazed areas is comparatively similar. Although grazing management is important for rehabilitating native vegetation, in grassy woodland ecosystems some livestock grazing pressure has little influence on reptile communities. Instead, the presence of micro-habitats such as native grasslands, fallen timber and bushrock can override effects of grazing pressure. Sadly, new technology is now being used to pulverise and crush bushrocks in the paddock. This activity is extremely concerning as it may cause a new wave of localised lizard extinctions on farms. We should be actively seeking new ways to maintain and protect small rocky outcrops on farms, not developing technologies to turn them into rubble.

Rocky outcrops like this provide critical habitat for reptiles.

Rocky outcrops like this provide critical habitat for reptiles.

Reptile Surveys in the Cowra Region

Dave Smith

Recently we received funding to conduct targeted surveys for reptiles, including the threatened Pink-tailed Worm-lizard Aprasia parapulchella, in the NSW Central Tablelands (Cowra, Canowindra, Woodstock and Darby’s Falls areas). Pink-tailed Worm-lizards are listed as vulnerable in Australia and are found in grasslands and woodlands of SE Australia. This legless lizard can grow to approximately 14cm in length and is often found living in ant or termite nests where it feeds on their larvae and eggs. Pink-tailed Worm-lizards are generally found in rocky outcrops or areas with scattered surface rocks and can be very difficult to detect. Even in areas of suitable habitat, there are only a few known records for this poorly understood species; with many records coming from our group’s own research on privately owned farmland. The same is true for many species of reptile found in the woodlands.

The project is funded by Central Tablelands Local Land Services NSW. The primary aim is to obtain new location records for some of the reptile species in the study area, including Pink-tailed Worm-lizard, and gain a better understanding of their habitat requirements and local distribution.

Pink-tailed Worm-lizard habitat. Photo: Dave Smith

Pink-tailed Worm-lizard habitat. Photo: Dave Smith

Due to a hot, dry spring, which seemed to be affecting survey success, we’ve now completed these surveys for 2017 and are pleased to report that they were a great success. Over the course of 5 weeks in spring, we intensively surveyed around 40 sites, mostly on private farmland, finding over 350 individual reptiles and many frogs as well. In all we found 22 species of herpetofauna (reptiles and frogs) including our species of special interest—the Pink-tailed Worm-lizard. We found 33 Pink-tailed Worm-lizards during our surveys and uncovered three previously unknown populations. Of particular interest are sites where we detected Pink-tailed Worm-lizards on a hill range where they have not previously been recorded. Other interesting species that we found in good numbers were the Thick-tailed Gecko Underwoodisaurus milii and Dwyer’s Snake Parasuta dwyeri.

Little is known about reptile distribution patterns and habitat use on private farmland in the region and the data we have collected will be important in filling in some of the gaps in that knowledge. Looking forward, we plan to install stock exclusion fencing in areas with key populations to assess the reptiles’ sensitivity to grazing. If we can secure more funding we aim to continue the surveys and visit more of the many keen landholders who expressed an interest in these reptile surveys. We also plan to expand these surveys beyond the Cowra region in the coming years and experiment with the use of artificial substrates as a habitat restoration technique. Our hope is that this project will complement our existing work and allow us to further inform management strategies for the conservation of reptiles in agricultural landscapes.

Many thanks to all the interested and engaged landholders who are involved in this study.