Experts fear rare little reptiles now even rarer after fires

The long-tailed sep.
Picture: Luke Kemp

Seldom seen, it could be even rarer after last week’s fires which swept the Eastern and Southern Cape.

Fitzsimons’ long-tailed seps, a strange looking snake-lizard with back limbs but no fore limbs, is classified as endangered. It is restricted to Schoenmakerskop and Humansdorp, with isolated populations in Knysna and George.

It characteristically “swims” through the grassy fynbos, Bayworld herpetologist Dr Werner Conradie said.

“With both Schoenies and Knysna hit by fires there is a concern about Fitzsimons’ long-tailed seps so a recce will have to be done. The only way to know for sure if it was hit is to find the corpses.”

The coppery coloured little reptile is covered in tough scales with a groove of softer scales on either side of its body to allow it to breathe.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Data List there is no information currently available on population size and the species is known from only about 15 museum specimens.

“Threats include crop farming, timber plantations, infrastructure development, invasive alien plants, fires and agricultural pollution.

“These threats are exacerbated because of the species’s restricted range and are particularly severe in and around Port Elizabeth,” the IUCN said.

The Elandsberg chameleon.
Picture: Luke Kemp

Research by the Stellenbosch University research unit Scarce notes that the related common long-tailed seps “is probably too small to be able to effectively flee from fire”.

“The behaviour of captive individuals gives an indication that at least some individuals will be able to escape from fire by burrowing into sand or underneath rocks, or entering rodent burrows.

“It is still expected that direct mortality during fire will be high.”

Conradie is also concerned about the Elandsberg chameleon whose stronghold on Lady Slipper was burned out last week. The chameleons range from a couple of centimetres long up to 12cm.

They sport characteristic black flecks on their throats and change colour from black with a white stripe, to variations of green, brown and brick red.

They catch flies, ants and grasshoppers and hang onto fynbos stems despite the fierce winds which prevail most afternoons on the top of Lady Slipper. They clamber to the top of their perches at night and sit with their mouths open in order, it is thought, to take in moisture.

Conradie said the population would “definitely be hammered”, by the latest fire.

“My feeling is that if I do a check now I won’t find any.

“But like with the fires in 2006 which also burned across Lady Slipper, I think some will find a safe pocket to hide away and they’ll start reappearing once the fynbos starts growing back.”

Another prominent herpetologist, Dr Bill Branch, said as fynbos species, the Fitzsimmons long-tailed seps and the Elandsberg chameleon were both adapted to fire – able to survive and flourish despite veld fires.

“But probably the climate change scenario we’re going to see is more frequent hot spells and more frequent fires.

“So the worry now is whether these species can bounce back in between these more frequent fire events.”

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