If you're not over the disappearance of Game of Thrones' dragons from our screens, there are real-life dragons to think about, including a species that may become the first reptile declared extinct on mainland Australia.
Our world may lack flying, fire-breathing dragons, but we have some that make our home richer and more interesting. Besides the fearsome Komodo dragons, there are bearded dragons upsetting ideas about what it means to be male and female and numerous smaller dragon species upholding biological diversity.
There have long been fears for the grassland earless dragons, whose habitat has been torn up for agriculture and urban development. The situation has not been helped by confusion over how many species of closely related dragons are present across south-eastern Australia. A paper in Royal Society Open Science helps untangle that, but the bad news is that one of the species identified hasn't been seen since 1969, making it unlikely it is still with us.
If called by their genus name (Tympanocryptis), grassland earless dragons might get less love, but when we're discussing such endangered species, it's only fair to use every public relations weapon available, so dragons they are.
These particular dragons grow to 15 centimeters (6 inches), inhabit open short grasslands, and lack external ear openings. Museums Victoria's Dr Jane Melville and co-authors used mitochondrial DNA and X-ray scans of museum specimens to identify four species – T. lineata, T. pinguicolla, T. osbornei, and T. mccartneyi – collected at spots hundreds of kilometers apart.
Sadly, it has been 50 years since anyone has reported seeing a T. pinguicolla, once native to the Melbourne and Geelong area, although the authors note that the dragons are easy to overlook. Previously, all four species had been lumped together. T. lineata and T. mccartneyi have longer tails and wider snouts compared to the other two but can be told apart by the length of their hindlimbs.
Australia has easily the worst record of mammalian extinctions of any continent in recent decades, having lost at least 29 to habitat loss, introduced species, and recently climate change. It's not known whether Australian reptiles are hardier or if they have been so poorly studied that many have been lost without us noticing. Meanwhile, 31 reptiles worldwide that have survived into the age of scientific taxonomy have been listed as extinct or extinct in the wild.
One Aussie reptile that has attracted attention is the Bellinger River snapping turtle, some 90 percent of which were wiped out by a virus. This week marked the release of the first 10 virus-free turtles from a captive breeding program that may give it a better future than the dragons.