Marwell uses technology to track reintroduction of Britain’s rarest lizard

September 15, 2018

Marwell Wildlife is using tiny radio tags to track the movements of Britain’s rarest reptile, the sand lizard Lacerta agilis, following reintroduction to a protected area.

24 out of 86 sand lizards released at Eelmoor Marsh Site of Special Scientific Interest at Farnborough were fitted with radio transmitters to help understand the behaviour of these cryptic animals post-release. At just 0.29 grams, each tag is less than five per cent of the body weight of a sand lizard, allowing researchers to detect the location of each animal and provide unique insights into their movements, distribution and habitat use. It is the first time radio tracking has been used to monitor reintroduced sand lizards in the UK.

The study is being carried as part of an initiative to re-establish the species at Eelmoor Marsh and improve knowledge to help wider conservation efforts. Marwell Wildlife and University of Southampton PhD student, Rachel Gardner, said: “Because they blend into the environment and spend time foraging and hiding in dense undergrowth, sand lizards can be incredibly difficult to see. Being able to track them in this way is really exciting – I can’t wait to see how far they go, how quickly, and exactly how they use the habitat.”

Despite occurring widely across Europe and Asia, the sand lizard Lacerta agilis is threatened in the north-western part of its range. The species disappeared from much of its former habitat in England and Wales due to habitat loss and degradation, but is recovering following concerted conservation efforts.

The heathland site, owned by QinetiQ and managed by Marwell Wildlife, has been restored to “favourable” condition following more than 20 years of targeted habitat management. Stephanie Tudgey, Environmental Advisor, QinetiQ, said: “We are delighted to continue supporting this important conservation programme with Marwell Wildlife and we look forward to learning more about sand lizard behaviour and the distribution of the released individuals on Eelmoor Marsh SSSI.”

Now in its second year, the project at Eelmoor Marsh will see a total of 240 sand lizards released into their historic range. In partnership with the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust and Natural England, Marwell has contributed nearly 2,000 sand lizards for reintroduction on heathland and sand dune sites across the South of England over the last 25 years. However, because sand lizard habitats are now largely isolated within fragments of heath, re-colonisation of suitable habitat is highly challenging.   Reintroduction from captive breeding facilities as well as detailed research into their fundamental ecology will continue for the foreseeable future, working towards the conservation for this species and the wider reptile community.

Marwell Wildlife has launched a fundraising campaign to refresh and increase the size of its facilities for breeding, studying and reintroducing sand lizards at Marwell Zoo in order to safeguard this rare species.