World’s reptiles mapped for the first time

The first definitive map showing the distribution and density of every reptile species in the world has completed the “atlas of life” – a geographic model of all vertebrate species, allowing scientists to better identify conservation hotspots.

The new map details more than 10,000 species of snakes, lizards, tortoises and turtles, and was compiled by a team of 39 scientists led by Uri Roll of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. It is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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An Auckland Green Gecko (Naultinus elegans elegans), one of 10,000 reptile species mapped for the very first time.
Credit: Matthijs Kuijpers

It complements previous surveys that have compiled data on approximately 5000 mammals, 10,000 birds and 600 frogs and salamanders. The reptile map is a significant achievement, coming more than a decade after the others were completed, because until recently available data was too scarce to allow confident interpretations.

The map revealed reptile diversity is threatened in areas such as the Arabian Peninsula, inland southern Africa, central Australia and the steppes of Asia. These findings were unexpected.

“Lizards especially tend to have weird distributions and often like hot and dry places, so many of the newly identified conservation priority areas are in drylands and deserts,” says Roll.

“These don’t tend to be priorities for birds or mammals, so we couldn’t have guessed them in advance.”

Identifying the areas in which reptile biodiversity is fragile is a major step in constructing the type of international conservation programs. However, many of the locations present considerable difficulties when it comes to putting any such plan into action.

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This new map details more than 10,000 species of snakes, lizards, tortoises and turtles.
Credit: Uri Roll – Ben Gurion University of the Negev

“On the one hand, finding vital areas in arid regions is a good thing because the land is fairly cheap,” says co-author Richard Greyner from Oxford University in the UK.

“But deserts and drylands are also home to lots of other modern activities, such as major irrigation projects, huge new solar power developments, and sometimes widespread land degradation, war and conflict. This makes them very challenging environment for conservationists to work.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature already has a team working on the information contained in the map, classifying each species according to its rarity and vulnerability. After this process this completed, the reptile atlas will be made available for free public access.

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