Add to collection
  • + Create new collection
  • Skinks and geckos are the only 2 native families of lizard found in Aotearoa New Zealand (note that tuatara are not lizards). They are vertebrates and belong to the class Reptilia.

    All our native skink and gecko species are endemic. Only 1 introduced species – the Plague (Rainbow) skink (Lampropholis delicata) – has successfully established itself here. Scientists think this species probably arrived accidentally on a ship from Australia.

    Unique New Zealand: reptiles and amphibians

    Explore this interactive to learn more about New Zealand’s unique reptiles and amphibians.

    Origins of our native lizards

    Scientists believe that the ancestors of our native geckos may have colonised New Zealand over 80 million years ago when it was still part of Gondwana. There is, however, some disagreement about the origins of our native skinks. Some scientists think they arrived 40 million years ago from New Caledonia. Others believe they only arrived in New Zealand within the last 20 million years.

    Rights: Kelly Hare, University of Otago

    Otago skink

    The Otago skink is one of our largest native skinks and is only found in Otago. It is ranked as nationally critical. The Department of Conservation administers the Grand and Otago Skink Recovery Plan.

    Skinks and geckos: similarities and differences

    Our native skinks and geckos share a number of common characteristics. However, there are some significant differences between them. These similarities and differences of our native species are outlined in the following table.




















    Naultinus, Hoplodactylus

    Number of native species

    • 33 species (78 species in total, but new species are still being discovered)
    • They are all endemic.
    • 48 (estimated) – these have not all been fully described.
    • They are all endemic.

    Physical characteristics and behaviour

    • Vary in colour and size – the longest measures 14 cm from head to cloaca.
    • Typically slender with narrow heads and small eyes.
    • They blink to keep their eyes clean.
    • May be active during the day (diurnal) or at night (nocturnal).
    • They can regrow a lost tail.
    • Good sense of smell, hearing and sight.
    • Good swimmers, sprinters and climbers.
    • Vary in colour and size – the longest measures 16 cm from head to cloaca.
    • Typically broader and more robust than skinks.
    • The lower eyelid has fused shut, but a transparent scale covers the eye. Geckos lick the scale to keep it clean.
    • Slow moving.
    • Large eyes, as their ancestors were mostly active at night (nocturnal).
    • They can regrow a lost tail.
    • Good sense of smell, hearing and sight.
    • Excellent climbing ability using the fine hairs on their toes to grip the surface.


    • Tight and shiny.
    • Scales that look similar to fish scales.
    • They rub their skin off in small patches rather than shedding it all at once.
    • Loose and velvety.
    • Normally brown or green.
    • Often have beautiful patterns on their skin.
    • When they shed their skin, it may come off in one go or in large pieces.


    • All but one species bear live young (the remaining species lays eggs).
    • Usually give birth to 2–5 young, but some species will have up to 10 at a time.
    • All give birth to live young.
    • Normally give birth to 2 young at a time.


    • A few species are vocal and make sounds.
    • Some species have been observed nodding and tail wiggling at each other.
    • More vocal than skinks and use clicks and squeaks to communicate.
    • Some species have been observed arching their mouths, opening their mouths and flicking their tails.


    • Most eat insects, soft berries, nectar from flowers and honey dew.
    • Some eat the remains of dead animals.
    • Most eat insects, soft berries, nectar from flowers and honey dew.
    • Some eat the remains of dead animals.


    • Native skinks are long-lived.
    • Native geckos are very long-lived and normally live longer than skinks.
    • Common geckos can live for at least 40 years in the wild.


    • Wide variety of habitats ranging from coastal to high altitude.
    • Each species is adapted to its specific habitat.
    • Wide variety of habitats ranging from coastal to high altitude.
    • Each species is adapted to its specific habitat.


    • Skinks are more commonly seen than geckos.
    • The main threats are introduced predators and habitat loss.
    • The main threats are introduced predators and habitat loss.

    Based on New Zealand’s threat classification system, almost half of our skinks and geckos are threatened or endangered. Despite this, our native lizards have typically received less attention and resources than birds and other endangered species.

    Rights: Rod Morris, Department of Conservation. Crown copyright 2009.

    Wellington green gecko

    Since 2006 a number of Wellington green geckos have been moved to Matiu/Somes Island. This predator-free island in Wellington’s harbour is a key site in the Department of Conservation’s translocation programme.

    However, in the past decade, efforts have increased significantly. Staff members of the Department of Conservation have a number of conservation projects focusing on species that are particularly at risk. They frequently collaborate on these projects with zoos, universities and Crown research institutes. These projects include breeding and keeping lizards in captivity, translocation, mammal control and habitat protection.

    Nature of science

    Scientists often work together towards a common goal, such as conserving a species. Different scientists and organisations have different areas of expertise, and collaborating can often enhance the success of conservation projects.

    Ongoing discoveries

    The Department of Conservation (DOC)has led a number of research projects over the years, often to very remote and/or difficult to access areas of New Zealand. Since this article was originally written, new species has been discovered – including five in the last few years. DOC estimates that New Zealand has 126 species of lizards, with some lizards only known from just a few sightings. After a discovery, scientists complete genetic testing on the lizard(s) to determine if are new populations of known lizard species or completely new species.

    If they aren’t new species, it means we have discovered populations of these lizards in places we didn’t know they were, which is great news.

    Dr Jo Monks, Department of Conservation

    Related content

    In From the smallest bones come the biggest secrets read about the work of former University of Otago Masters student Lachie Scarsbrook. He developed a specialised technique that allows scientists to non-destructively extract ancient DNA from tiny precious remains of ancient geckos and sequence their genomes without damaging the original fossil.

    Read the fascinating story of how an elusive new species of gecko was identified and named in 2023.

    Activity ideas

    Try this activity with your students to help illustrate the key similarities and differences between skinks and geckos.

    Conservation ranking in action explores the processes and criteria used to rank animals according to their conservation threat status.

    The activity Create a lizard-friendly habitat provides students with ideas on how to attract skinks and geckos to the school grounds.

    Citizen science

    Skink Spotter NZ is an online citizen science project that identifies whether skinks are present in time-lapse image sequences. The information will inform scientists about the link between skink behaviour and weather conditions.

    Useful links

    The New Zealand Herpetological Society (NZHS) website has comprehensive and freely available online resources about Aotearoa New Zealand’s reptiles and amphibians.

    There is also lots of information on the Department of Conservation website's Lizards section.

    The Department of Conservation electronic atlas for amphibians and reptiles provides information on habitat and distribution for all our native skinks and geckos.

    Read this 2021 RadioNZ article, Report confirms four new species of lizard in New Zealand, around 70% of reptile species were found to now be declining, five years ago it was 46%.

    In this recorded webinar from NZ Predator Free, listen to native lizard expert Carey Knox talk about his search for rare lizards and the discoveries of new populations throughout New Zealand.

    Find out more about the pest species – the plague (rainbow) skink on the Pest Detectives website.

      Published 17 December 2009, Updated 8 September 2022 Referencing Hub articles
          Go to full glossary
          Download all