Reptile Conservation Requires Careful Attention to Environmental Factors

Reptile conservation requires careful attention to environmental factors. Sometimes these factors are as straightforward as addressing local pollution or working with land owners to preserve habitat.

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The assessment data can be incorporated into tools such as green status assessments1,2,3,4, identification of key biodiversity areas and resource allocation using systematic conservation planning5.

Human-altered landscapes create new hurdles for dispersing reptiles, adding to the natural geographic barriers that already limit their movements.

Habitat Requirements

Reptile habitats are complex mixtures of temperatures, humidity levels, photoperiods, elevations, organic lifeforms and inorganic material. Most reptiles inhabit deserts, woodlands, temperate grasslands and savannahs, tropical forests, and marine environments.

Amphibians and reptiles have small distributional ranges, high endemism, and poor dispersal abilities (Green 2003). Their vulnerability to landscape transformation reflects these characteristics and their limited ability to migrate to other areas. They are susceptible to changes in natural disturbance regimes, over-hunting and direct and indirect competition with nonnative and invasive species as well as environmental pollution, severe weather, and disease (Cox et al. 2007).

A common cause of amphibian and reptile population declines is habitat loss and fragmentation resulting from agricultural development, urbanization, roadway construction, and land clearing. The availability of a full array of habitat components is also critical for these animals to survive.

When caring for reptiles in captivity, it is important to design and build the best possible enclosure. The enclosure must provide ample space for thermoregulation, movement, security and access to a variety of microclimates. Many people attempt to create naturalistic enclosures, adding layered substrates, plants, branches, molded back and side walls, “ponds,” and other features. However, these enclosures are often too small to allow the intended inhabitant to move about and to easily access necessary thermally neutralizing, food-gathering and watering microclimates.

Managing Habitats

Reptiles are a diverse group of vertebrates, comprising a variety of body forms and habitat affinities. They are largely terrestrial, but also include a number of aquatic species (turtles and crocodiles), with the remaining squamates (lizards, snakes and amphisbaenians) and the arid-adapted tuatara (Rhynchocephalia).

Their often narrow niche requirements and small ranges mean they are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic threat processes. Global assessments reveal that, among tetrapods, more than 20 percent of reptile species are at risk of extinction1,2.

The good news is that there are many things that can be done to support reptile conservation. This synopsis pulls together available evidence on the effectiveness of a range of actions – from captive breeding and head-starting to changing livestock grazing regimes and adding woody debris to the landscape, as well as surveys and education and awareness raising.

This work can help inform land management strategies, providing guidance on how to make land more reptile friendly. This is especially important in agricultural intensification areas where opportunities to ‘spare’ land for wildlife are often lost. In particular, mowing and burning should be planned to avoid damaging reptile habitats, and field margins should be maintained where possible to prevent the loss of important lizard-use habitat.

Managing Sites for Reptiles

Reptiles are impacted by a wide range of human activities and habitat degradation. In many regions, conservation organizations work with private land owners to preserve and restore herpetofaunal habitat. Some organizations also provide educational components to inform the public of the value of these species, and they encourage citizen participation in wildlife protection.

While comprehensive extinction-risk assessments have been developed for birds, mammals and amphibians, reptiles remain underrepresented in these types of analyses. This is in part due to a lack of suitable methodologies for conducting these analyses, and in part because herpetologists have traditionally been less involved in wildlife conservation activities than biologists and botanists.

Our studies have shown that surface rocks provide important retreat habitat for a range of squamate and other ectotherms, especially in agricultural landscapes where habitats are at greatest risk of fragmentation. Consequently, protection of rocky areas from agricultural development should be an essential component of reptile conservation strategies. This may be difficult, however, given that the occurrence of squamates on cliff faces is often dependent on the availability of a range of other habitat elements (e.g., shelter, food, water, thermal regimes) and that rocky sites are often perceived by farm managers as ‘low productivity’ areas for tree and shrub plantings (Michael et al., 2021).

The identification and protection of reptile ‘hot-spots’ should be an integral part of any land management plan. These are likely to include features that provide good basking or hiding habitat, and are generally sheltered from wind, sun and rain.

Managing Sites for Other Species

The conservation of reptiles often requires the support of other species. Invasive plant species can alter local- to landscape-scale habitat structure and microclimates, affecting reptile species’ survival, movement patterns, and predation risks. Natural and human-caused disturbances may likewise affect reptile habitat.

A number of threats disproportionately threaten reptiles, including loss and fragmentation, over-exploitation, pollution and climate change. In addition, many reptiles have limited dispersal abilities. Urbanization, road networks and other human-altered barriers impede their ability to move across landscapes and thus limit their exposure to predators and resources. Over time, human-altered landscapes can even obstruct natural geographic barriers. For example, the northward expansion of lizard ranges in Spain coincided with the closure of mountain passes through their territory (see Fig. 1 and Extended Data Fig. 4a).

Habitat management for reptiles often involves restoring and/or maintaining the physical structure and composition of native habitats to better meet their needs. For instance, open habitat management may be needed to forestall encroaching vegetation and reduce weed infestation; meadow shrub and tree control might help retain sun-exposure for sand lizards; and riparian buffer management might be important for water-dependent reptiles to manage water temperatures and to preserve refugia from flooding. A range of other actions might be taken as part of a holistic conservation plan for reptiles, such as maintenance of natural fire regimes, removal of invasive plants and reversal of changes to hydroperiod in floodplain systems.