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.
"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.
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.
"The ideal is to get the win-win, where you can promote people making a living off the land and keeping it as livable for skinks too."
The critical thing, he says, is to involve the landowners without triggering concerns that saving the skink will cost them their livelihood.
Over the past half-century, the cattle industry became less profitable and many farmers turned to grain and potatoes. About 7,000 hectares of mixed-grass prairie were converted to potato farms from 1961 to 2000, and the area is now known as King Spud Country. The region's 24-hour McCain Foods potato-processing plant, with 500 employees, is by far the biggest player in the local economy.
On the surface, the two appear to be mutually exclusive: Potatoes grow best in soil too heavy for skink habitation. But there's a mixed-soil zone between the two types of terrain that skink boosters say could be crucial to the animal's survival, and they want to get
landowners onside before more habitat is lost.
Carberry Mayor Wayne Blair, who wants the town to erect a skink statue as a tourist attraction, says it will be difficult
to persuade potato growers
to relinquish the crop, but
landowners who haven't made the switch to potatoes might yet be open to choosing mixed grasses instead.
"I think the potato growers would be a hard sell, to take land out of production right now, but in some of the cases where the growers aren't potato growers, I don't think it would be nearly as tough," Mr. Blair says. "A lot of them would say, 'We can live with what we're doing right now.' "
Much of what is known about skinks is thanks largely to one man who has been chasing them for 47 years.
As a typical boy growing up on the Shilo military base, Errol Bredin spent his summers pocketing frogs, scrutinizing rocks for fossils and mastering the art of catching the small lizards darting around the sand hills. It's a tricky skill: A skink can drop its tail and regrow it later, so it's best to lay an open, gentle slap over the lizard's body and scoop it up, lest you are left with just a twitching tail.
For decades, Mr. Bredin, 58, felt like the only one interested in skinks. Even today, lifelong locals can be surprised to discover that they have a lizard in their midst.
But as the years passed, the field naturalist became increasingly concerned at what he was seeing. Sandy, open sites where he used to study skinks as a teen now lie deep in aspen forest. The march of the trees happened before his eyes.
"In a lot of ways, it's a natural succession, or they say it is. I don't necessarily agree with that," Mr. Bredin says from his home near the Carberry Sandhills, south of Austin. "They [skinks]are threatened, and it's going to go beyond that relatively quickly if we let things go the way they are."
Though he has no formal science training, Mr. Bredin has written numerous scientific papers on the northern prairie skink and has become the
go-to man for everything skink-related.
He penned the report that prompted the Canadian government to list the northern prairie skink as threatened in 1989 and it was his fieldwork that helped to raise their federal status to endangered in 2004. (In Manitoba, the species is listed as threatened and its status is under review by the Endangered Species Advisory Committee.)
"For a long time, I was like a voice in the wilderness, and when that paper came out 'endangered,' that kicked in the federal guidelines. ... It was like passing on the torch. I knew they would be protected," Mr. Bredin says of his "little skink friends."
Now, he hopes to see others champion the cause to implement serious management measures. "If they're very tardy on that," he acknowledges sadly, "then I don't hold a lot of hope. Thirty, 40, 50 years from now, they could be gone."
It's not the end of days yet. The skinks emerged late this year because of a spring cold snap, but they did emerge, and skink supporters believe that there is still time to turn things around.
If they succeed, their efforts will reach beyond these native lizards and into the sandy hills they call home.
"The mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, there are some very, very serious threats to it," Dr. Rutherford says. "I don't want to call them an indicator species. I don't think that's the right language." But their habitat is disappearing, she says.
"Saving a skink isn't going to cure cancer, but they're an important part of an ecosystem that is declining and I think that has some important consequences."
Tenille Bonoguore is a writer for Globe T.O.