Stay-at-home parents make for a cooperative family of lizards

May 11, 2011

The great desert burrowing skink, a lizard living on the sandy plains of Central Australia, has been discovered to live in family groups within elaborately constructed tunnel complexes. Published in PLoS One, researchers Steve McAlpin, Paul Duckett and Adam Stow from Macquarie University, in partnership with Parks Australia, found that family members of the great desert burrowing skink contribute to the construction and maintenance of burrow systems that can have up to 20 entrances, extend over 13 meters, and even have their own specifically located latrines. That these social lizards invest in a long-term housing structure that benefits them, their offspring or siblings is unprecedented in a lizard and may provide a unique insight into the evolution of family groups and cooperation. According to the researchers, the faithful nature of adult pairs, which were found to breed together over consecutive years, is likely to be essential for this family cohesion, though they also observed that 40 percent of the male lizards had produced offspring with different females.

This work was carried out at Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park as part of Steve McAlpin's research for his Masters degree under the supervision of Dr Adam Stow. It has revealed fascinating life history traits of a lizard species that is listed as threatened. From over 5000 species of lizard worldwide, no other has been found to cooperate to construct a long-term home for their family members.

The shared home of the great desert skink, Liopholis kintorei, can be continuously occupied for up to 7 years. Multiple generations participate in construction and maintenance of burrows, with tunnels mostly excavated and maintained by adults, and immature lizards contributing small 'pop' holes to the network. Parental assignments based on DNA analysis show that immature individuals within the same burrow were mostly full siblings (all immature were full siblings in 18 of 24 burrow systems), even when several age cohorts were present. were therefore delaying their dispersal to stay at home. Parents were always captured at burrows containing their offspring, and were only detected breeding with the same male both within- and across seasons.

"For adults to invest so much in a home within which kids mature, it makes evolutionary sense that these adult individuals are sure that they are providing for their own offspring," says Dr. Adam Stow, Senior Lecturer in Biology at Macquarie University, New South Wales, Australia.

The construction and maintenance of a long-term home occurs in many other taxa; in vertebrates there are examples from most phyla. Cooperative behaviours generally occur among related individuals, but mate fidelity is not common in lizard species, and this may explain the rarity of such social behaviour. Future work will further investigate the parental care that the great desert skink provides, the effort different individuals put into home making and identifying lazy siblings that might be shirking their home maintenance responsibilities, and how this is managed by other group members.

Explore further: Lowly 'new girl' chimps form stronger female bonds

More information: McAlpin S, Duckett P, Stow A (2011) Lizards Cooperatively Tunnel to Construct a Long-Term Home for Family Members. PLoS ONE 6(5): e19041. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019041

Related Stories

Family ties bind desert lizards in social groups

Oct 06, 2010

( -- Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have found that a species of lizard in the Mojave Desert lives in family groups and shows patterns of social behavior more commonly ...

Lizard sex linked to climate

Oct 28, 2010

( -- A Tasmanian lizard has evolved to give birth to more male or more female offspring depending on climatic conditions, Oxford University scientists have discovered.

Lizard uses UV signals to ward off rivals

Mar 21, 2011

( -- We’re all familiar with different animal species using a variety of strategies to attract a mate or chase off an aggressor or a rival. For birds, it’s often a dazzling display of ...

Recommended for you

Estuaries protect Dungeness crabs from deadly parasites

4 hours ago

Parasitic worms can pose a serious threat to the Dungeness crab, a commercially important fishery species found along the west coast of North America. The worms are thought to have caused or contributed to ...

Our bond with dogs may go back more than 27,000 years

May 21, 2015

Dogs' special relationship to humans may go back 27,000 to 40,000 years, according to genomic analysis of an ancient Taimyr wolf bone reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 21. Earlier genome ...

Social structure 'helps birds avoid a collision course'

May 21, 2015

The sight of skilful aerial manoeuvring by flocks of Greylag geese to avoid collisions with York's Millennium Bridge intrigued mathematical biologist Dr Jamie Wood. It raised the question of how birds collectively ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.