Author: Robyn Lyle Bellamy


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ABSTRACT Social relationships, habitat utilisation and life history characteristics provide a framework which enables the survival of populations in fluctuating ecological conditions. An understanding of behavioural ecology is critical to the implementation of Natural Resource Management strategies if they are to succeed in their conservation efforts during the emergence of climate change. Egernia whitii from Wedge Island in the Spencer Gulf of South Australia were used as a model system to investigate the interaction of life history traits, scat piling behaviour and chemosensory communication in social lizards. Juveniles typically took ˇÝ 3 years to reach sexual maturity and the results of skeletochronological studies suggested longevity of ˇÝ 13 years. Combined with a mean litter size of 2.2, a pregnancy rate estimated at 75% of eligible females during short-term studies, and highly stable groups, this information suggests several life history features. Prolonged juvenile development and adult longevity may be prerequisite to the development of parental care. Parental care may, in turn, be the determining factor that facilitates the formation of small family groups. In E. whitii parental care takes the form of foetal and neonatal provisioning and tolerance of juveniles by small family or social groups within established resource areas. Presumably, resident juveniles also benefit from adult territorialism. Research on birds suggests that low adult mortality predisposes cooperative breeding or social grouping in birds, and life history traits and ecological factors appear to act together to facilitate cooperative systems. E. whitii practice scat piling both individually and in small groups. Social benefits arising from signalling could confer both cooperative and competitive benefits. Permanent territorial markers have the potential to benefit conspecifics, congenerics and other species. The high incidence of a skink species (E. whitii) refuging with a gecko species (N. milii) on Wedge Island provides an example of interspecific cooperation. The diurnal refuge of the nocturnal gecko is a useful transient shelter for the diurnal skink. Scat piling may release a species ˇ®signatureˇŻ for each group that allows mutual recognition. Scat piling also facilitates intraspecific scent marking by individual members, which has the potential to indicate relatedness, or social or sexual status within the group. The discovery of cloacal scent marking activity is new to the Egernia genus. E. Whitii differentiate between their own scats, and conspecific and congeneric scats. They scent mark at the site of conspecific scats, and males and females differ in their response to scent cues over time. Scat piling has the potential to make information concerning the social environment available to dispersing transient and potential immigrant conspecifics, enabling settlement choices to be made. This thesis explores some of the behavioural strategies employed by E. whitii to reduce risks to individuals within groups and between groups. Scents eliciting a range of behavioural responses relevant to the formation of adaptive social groupings, reproductive activity, and juvenile protection until maturity and dispersal are likely to be present in this species. Tests confirming chemosensory cues that differentiate sex, kin and age would be an interesting addition to current knowledge. The interaction of delayed maturity, parental care, sociality, chemosensory communication and scat piling highlights the sophistication of this speciesˇŻ behaviour. An alternative method for permanently marking lizards was developed. Persistence, reliability and individual discrimination were demonstrated using photographic identification and the method was shown to be reliable for broad-scale application by researchers. Naturally occurring toe loss in the field provided a context against which to examine this alternative identification method and revealed the need to further investigate the consequences of routine toe clipping, as this practice appears to diminish survivorship.

Keywords: sociality,skink,life history,chemosensory communication,scat piling,Egernia whitii,lizard,Australian,Wedge Island,South Australia,parental care,juveniles,ecology,scent marking,territorial markers,interspecific cooperation,signals,markers,latrines,tongue flick assay,social interactions,agonism avoidance,refuge sharing,scent stimuli,pattern markings,toe-clipping,juvenile survival,autophagy,habitat,morphology,growth,reproduction,diet,behaviour.

Subject: Biological sciences thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2007
School: School of Biological Sciences
Supervisor: Associate Professor Michael P. Schwarz