Rediscovery of the lost skink Proscelotes aenea and implications for conservation

Biodiversity loss is recognized as a grand challenge of the twenty-first century but ascertaining when a species is “lost” can be incredibly difficult—since the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This may be a relatively easy task for large and conspicuous animals, but extremely difficult for those living hidden lives or at low population sizes. We showcase this challenge by focusing on Africa’s montane skink, Proscelotes aenea (Barbour & Loveridge 1928). In this study, we embarked on a year-long intensive survey to find this fossorial species in Lumbo, Northern Mozambique, the only remaining location where it may still occur but was recorded for the last time over 100 years ago. We located the species already after 20 days of intensive and targeted searching by five members of our team. The finding allowed us to describe, for the first time, details on the biology and ecology of the species, alongside photos and videos of live specimens (including a pregnant female), and to sequence DNA from the species, which we used to infer the phylogenetic placement. Our combined 12S and 16S phylogenetic analysis weakly suggest that the genus Proscelotes may not be monophyletic and therefore requires further phylogenetic work and potentially taxonomic revision. We also gathered evidence of a possible decrease in population abundance and, based on the species' ecology, we identified urbanization as a potential key threat, which could lead to the local or global extirpation of the species. We call for urgent conservation actions that help protect the future of the montane skink, and additional surveys to map its full distribution. As countries now work towards implementing the goals and targets of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, our study demonstrates the need for proper investments in biodiversity inventories and monitoring in order to halt species extinctions by 2030.