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'Darn hard to study, the little beggars' Add to ...

Scuttling beneath low-ranging juniper scrub under a wide prairie sky, an anomaly of nature is gingerly avoiding the open sand nearby. Although the northern prairie skink spends the winters hibernating in burrows below the freeze line, in summer the sun-scorched grains are too hot for its tiny claws.

Nor can it venture into the forest on the other side of the juniper scrub, for this little reptile can survive only in an environment of sandy soil and mixed grass.

Each year, that habitable world is shrinking. Manitoba's only native lizard - one of just six lizard species found in perilously cold Canada - is endangered, threatened by the march of invasive plants and the loss of habitat to more profitable agriculture in its realm near Carberry, Man.

But this summer could be a critical moment in the skink's survival. Forces are mobilizing on two fronts in southern Manitoba to save the small, fleet-footed lizards. A Save Our Skinks (S.O.S.) campaign, based in Winnipeg, aims to turn Carberry-area residents into a legion of skink stewards, while at Brandon University, researchers are readying new ways to probe skink survival - first of all, by finding out how the critters have survived here for so long.

COLOURFUL QUIRK

"They're just so darn hard to study, the little beggars," says Brandon University professor Pamela Rutherford, her voice laughing down the phone line. "They're very secretive. When they're warm, they run exceedingly fast. It's hard to find them, it's hard to catch them."

There is little solid data about the northern prairie skink - even their diet is a mystery, although they're assumed to be insect eaters. About 15 centimetres long, the skink has stripes down its back and five tiny, clawed toes on each foot. In a colourful quirk, the juveniles have bright blue tails. Confounded researchers assume that it's a natural defence mechanism to distract and confuse would-be attackers (and researchers).

This summer, Dr. Rutherford's students will tag and count skinks in the Carberry Sandhills to create an up-to-date population estimate (the professor does not rely on the 896,500 number cited in government reports). They will also use a fibre-optic cable to peer into skink burrows and find out what actually happens underground. "I'm more than open to the possibility that I may discover that I don't know anything," Dr. Rutherford says.

Dr. Rutherford is collaborating with Stephen Lougheed at Queen's University in Kingston in an effort to analyze the animal's genetic makeup to see how similar, or different, the Manitoban skinks are from their U.S. cousins. While prairie skink populations are veritably booming in the United States, their cousins in Manitoba exist only in small pockets in the sandy hills that were once the Assiniboine Delta.

If the families prove genetically close enough, Dr. Rutherford says, southern skinks could be introduced to bolster the Canadian population.

S.O.S. CAMPAIGN

Outside the academic world, another skink scheme is brewing. Doug Collicutt, publisher of the Nature North e-zine, is a key member of the Internet-based Save Our Skinks community campaign, which is issuing T-shirts and "wanted" posters calling on locals to report any skink sightings, and promoting the second annual Skinkfest at Spruce Woods Provincial Park this summer.

Mr. Collicutt hopes that their efforts will morph into a "citizen science" monitoring program with residents conduct-

ing skink counts on their land and becoming front-line researchers in the bid to save the lizards.

In his opinion, it's the only way to ensure their survival. "It's going to fall on general Manitobans to start taking care of their own wildlife species at risk," he says.

Large areas of habitat have been protected. On the Shilo military base, east of Brandon, range practice often sparks wildfires that clear the vegetation while track vehicles pound the earth, replicating conditions of forest fires and bison migration. It's skink heaven.

Less hospitable is Spruce Woods Provincial Park, which Mr. Collicutt says has no controlled burn regimen and where park managers are allowing aspens to take over the prairie. "Spruce Woods is becoming spruce woods," he laments. "There's places where the aspen has increased 50 and 60 per cent over what it was 50 years ago."

At the third protected habitat, the Lauder Sandhills, west of Brandon, the picture is even more grim. No skinks have been seen there since 2005. "That's not a positive sign at all," Dr. Rutherford notes.

But there is hope. At a land-owners' meeting held this year, a group advocated that grasslands outside the protected zones be maintained as pasture, instead of converted to agriculture.

"That's distinctly what we want to hear, from a skink perspective," Mr. Collicutt says. "We know there's people out there who care and want to protect the habitat, but without the right information they can't do it.

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