Context. The study of threatened species is often challenged by their rarity and secretive life-history traits. Species adapted to extreme environments prone to stochastic conditions present further challenges because of fluctuating populations and patchy distributions. We employed a variety of methods to gather records and habitat information on the bronzeback legless lizard (Ophidiocephalus taeniatus), an endemic, nationally vulnerable monotypic pygopod reptile that is poorly understood because of fossorial, cryptic behaviour and remote distribution in the stony deserts of inland Australia.
Aims. Our aim was to determine foundational information on the distribution and landscape parameters relevant to this species and its disturbance-prone habitat and to formulate conceptual models to guide understanding, future research and management of threats.
Methods. We used multiple data sources, including targeted field surveys with Antakarintja traditional land owners across ∼5000km2 of previously unsurveyed habitat, sampled the catch of uncapped mine shafts with community volunteers, trialled artificial refuge substrates and elicited public opportunistic sightings.
Key results. We gathered 30 new records of the species from leaf litter mats of six shrub species, across four land systems. Examination of these records in the context of land system boundaries demonstrated a continuous distributional link between previously known areas of habitat and suggested large tracts of potential habitat that remain unsurveyed for the species. This information in combination with other published data was used to create conceptual models of habitat preference, population and disturbance, in which we suggest that O. taeniatus favours microhabitats that are prone to severe and long-lasting disturbance in some parts of the landscape, exacerbated by human land use practices.
Conclusions. Our study suggests that O. taeniatus distribution is unlikely to be severely fragmented, as had previously been suggested. Its total extent of occurrence may be greater than previously thought, despite a very low area of occupancy within this.
Implications. This study emphasises the value of using multiple, innovative data sources when studying rare and cryptic species. Further distributional surveys in identified areas of potential habitat in combination with testing and refinement of our conceptual model of habitat and population drivers are needed to fully assess the distribution, conservation status and ecological drivers of O. taeniatus.