The evolution of lizards

08 January 2018

three toed skink

The South Australian Museum will join the first comprehensive study of its kind on the evolution of lizards in Australia.

Earlier this month, a $300,000 Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant was awarded to a group of researchers led by Dr David Chapple from the Monash University School of Biological Sciences. It was one of 16 successful new research grants awarded in 2017 that include South Australian Museum researchers, the total amount awarded amounting to $6.9 million.

In conjunction with colleagues from Museum Victoria and Museum of Natural History in Berlin, the South Australian Museum will provide comparative data to document and measure the diversity of the lizard species, with a primary focus on skinks (Scincidae).
Australia has over 800 species of lizards, and 60% of these are skinks, that vary from the tiny dwarf skink weighing half a gram, to the big armour-plated sleepy lizard. Australia is a centre of skink diversity, home to a quarter of all skink species worldwide.

Over the next five years, the South Australian Museum will contribute to the ARC Linkage Project using state of the art CT scanning and 3D imagery to reveal the skeletal changes that have underpinned the evolution of skinks in Australia.

“Rather than gathering a collection of bones, it will be a collection of images – taking the traditional museum role, and giving it a 21st century twist” said Dr Mark Hutchinson, Head of Biological and Earth Sciences and Senior Researcher, Herpetology, at the South Australian Museum.

“Using this ‘virtual skeleton’ collection we are now able to look at shape and structure using computer programs that require a 3D image as a starting point. We will be able to accurately assess even subtle differences in body shape and relate them to their various ecological roles.”

In the long term, this research will enable the South Australian Museum, and other museums involved, to expand their collections and fulfil broader research aims.

“We will be able to relate lizard fossils that are currently poorly known to the variation we observe in living species to help us understand where this variation came from. This will enable us to identify the early stages of evolution of these groups,” said Dr Hutchinson.

The use of CT scanning machines and 3D imaging to study animal evolution is a relatively new approach, and Adelaide has one of the leading research groups in Australia to pioneer this technology.