Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 23, 2020


Elise Bennett, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 755-6950,
Renata Platenberg, Ecologist, (340) 344-9090,

Lawsuit Challenges Federal Failure to Protect Caribbean Lizards as Endangered

Skinks Threatened by Habitat Destruction, Introduced Predators, Climate Change, Development Linked to Jeffrey Epstein

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Center for Biological Diversity sued Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to protect eight rare species of skink, a type of lizard, under the Endangered Species Act. The skinks are found only on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and face extinction because of introduced predators, habitat destruction and climate change.

“Wildlife officials simply can’t put off endangered species protections for these rare and vulnerable lizards any longer,” said Elise Bennett, a Center attorney. “Skinks have been driven from their limited habitat by rampant development and human-introduced predators until many can no longer be found. Waiting much longer to protect these rare little animals would mean ratifying their extinction.”

The Center petitioned to protect the skinks in 2014 with Dr. Renata Platenberg, an ecologist specializing in Caribbean reptiles. In 2016 the Fish and Wildlife Service found the eight species might warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the agency subsequently failed to make a determination within the required 12-month period. It has been more than five years since the agency missed this key deadline.

The skinks are threatened by habitat destruction, human-introduced predators like rats and mongooses, climate change and resulting sea-level rise and extreme storm events.

“These skinks are pretty special,” said Dr. Renata Platenberg. “They’re long and cylindrical with a metallic copper sheen, very different from the other lizards around them. They urgently need protection and recovery efforts to ensure they are still around even 10 years from now.”

Two of the skinks, the lesser Virgin Islands skink and Virgin Islands bronze skink, as well as the endangered Virgin Islands tree boa, are believed to occur on Great St. James, which Jeffrey Epstein purchased in 2016 to construct a sprawling compound with two homes, cottages and various other buildings connected by private roads.

At least some of the construction has taken place without government permits. Since Epstein’s death the fate of the island and the endangered animals is uncertain.

Scientists identified the skinks as separate species in a 2012 study. All are considered critically endangered or endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and they are absent or extremely rare across most of their former ranges.

In addition to habitat destruction and non-native predators like cats, mongoose and rats, climate change is causing sea-level rise and extreme storm events like the deadly Category 5 Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, which damaged the limited habitat of these entirely island-dwelling species. As many of the skink’s islands are small and low in elevation, they are particularly vulnerable.

Caribbean skinks, which can grow to be about 8 inches long, are unique among reptiles in having reproductive systems most like humans, including a placenta and live birth. They have cylindrical bodies, and most have ill-defined necks that, together with their sinuous movements and smooth, bronze-colored skin, make them look like stubby snakes with legs.

Three of the species included in today’s notice are found within the territory of Puerto Rico: the Culebra skink (Culebra and the adjacent islet of Culebrita), Mona skink (Mona Island) and Puerto Rican skink (Puerto Rico and several of its satellite islands). The remaining five are found in the Virgin Islands: the greater St. Croix skink (St. Croix and its satellite Green Cay), lesser St. Croix skink (St. Croix), greater Virgin Islands skink (St. John and St. Thomas), Virgin Islands bronze skink (St. Thomas and several of its islets, several British Virgin Islands) and lesser Virgin Islands skink (St. Thomas and two adjacent islets, several British Virgin Islands).

Greater_Saint_Croix_Skink_A._ J._Meier_Spondylurus_magnacruzae_FPWC_Commercial_Use_OK.jpg
Greater St. Croix Skink (Spondylurus magnacruzae). Photo courtesy of A.J. Meier. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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