Oligosoma aff. polychroma Clade 5

Southern grass skink

Oligosoma aff. polychroma Clade 5

Southern grass skink (Christchurch, Canterbury). <a href="https://www.instagram.com/nickharker.nz/">© Nick Harker</a>
Image attribution
Southern grass skink (Christchurch, Canterbury). © Nick Harker
Herpetofaunal category
NZ Skinks
Species complex
Conservation Status
At Risk - Declining
Previous scientific names
Oligosoma polychroma,
Oligosoma nigriplantare polychroma.
Common names
Southern grass skink,
Common skink

Length: SVL up to 80mm, with the tail being equal to or slightly longer than the body length

Weight: unknown


A very sleek and variable species of grass skink with a snout-vent-length (SVL) up to 80 mm. Southern grass skinks are often characterised by their dark to tan-brown dorsal (upper) surfaces, which may or may not exhibit a dark mid-dorsal stripe extending down the tail. Pale dorsolateral stripes (smooth or notched) are also present along their flanks. Their lateral surfaces (sides) are dominated by a dark brown lateral band with smooth or notched borders that are usually pale. The ventral (lower) surfaces are variable, but are often a uniform grey, brown, tan-brown, cream, white or yellow, with the throat often being lighter in colouration ranging from white-grey to grey-brown. Their eye colour is typically brown-tan but may have green hues. Hypermelanstic/dark individuals have been observed from some localities.

Southern grass skinks are difficult to differentiate from other members of the grass skink complex, however, Jewell (2022) notes that they can be differentiated from the tussock skink (Oligosoma chionochloescens) by their head shape (blunt snout vs. long snout), and by colour/pattern (at least at their contact zone), with the tussock skink being a lighter tan-brown, having smooth-edged stripes, and exhibiting complete mid-dorsal, and outer-dorsal stripes.

Life expectancy

Largely unknown, but as with most of Aotearoa's small endemic skinks, their life expectancy is likely to be at least 10-20 years in the wild. 


The southern grass skink is restricted to the Canterbury and Otago regions, reaching its northern limits around Banks Peninsula and Lake Tekapo, and being bounded to the south by Lake Wakatipu, the northern Crown Range, Pisa Range, Lindis Pass, St Bathans Range, Hawkdun and Ida Ranges, Danseys Pass, and the Kakanui Hills.

Ecology and habitat

Southern grass skinks are a very frequently seen species because they are diurnal, avid sun-baskers, and terrestrial. This species has been recorded in densities as high as 4000 per hectare (Wilson et al. 2017). Southern grass skinks inhabit a range of habitats including coastal dune habitat, wetlands, grassland, shrublands, rocky shrubland/herbfield, screes, tussock, stony river beds and even cities.

Social structure


Breeding biology

This species reproduces annually and is mature at about 3 years old. Mating likely takes place around March, with 3-6 offspring born in the summer months (November-February) (van Winkel et al. 2018).


Southern grass skinks are primarily insectivorous, feeding on small arachnids, beetles, and other invertebrates, but are also known to take advantage of the fruit and nectar of certain native plants when they are in season.


Southern grass skinks are known hosts for the ectoparasitic mites Odontacarus lygosomae, and Ophionyssus scincorum, as well as the blood parasite Hepatozoon lygosomarum.

They are known hosts for the trematode Dolichosaccus leiolopismae, a species seemingly restricted to Aotearoa's reptile fauna (Allison & Blair, 1987).

Conservation strategy

Listed in the most recent threat classification as 'At Risk - Declining'. This species is not being actively managed. However, when land is developed/destroyed, this species is often salvaged and relocated to suitable habitat. This species is also present at a number of predator-resistant sanctuaries. 

Interesting notes

This species has been observed occupying insect burrows.

Southern grass skinks are members of a cryptic species complex which includes the northern grass skink (Oligosoma polychroma), Waiharakeke grass skink (Oligosoma aff. polychroma Clade 2), south Marlborough grass skink (Oligosoma aff. polychroma Clade 3), Canterbury grass skink (Oligosoma aff. polychroma Clade 4), and Tussock skink (Oligosoma chionochloescens). The various species are regionally distributed, similar in both appearance and habit, and were once regarded as a single highly variable species - the 'common skink'. There are currently no known morphological features to distinguish Southern grass skinks from the other species within the complex. 


Allison, B., & Blair, D. (1987). The genus Dolichosaccus (Platyhelminthes: Digenea) from amphibians and reptiles in New Zealand, with a description of Dolichosaccus (Lecithopyge) leiolopismae n. sp. New Zealand journal of zoology14(3), 367-374.

Allison, B., & Desser, S. S. (1981). Developmental stages of Hepatozoon lygosomarum (Doré 1919) comb. n.(Protozoa: Haemogregarinidae), a parasite of a New Zealand skink, Leiolopisma nigriplantare. The Journal of Parasitology, 852-858.

Chapple, D. G., Ritchie, P. A., & Daugherty, C. H. (2009). Origin, diversification, and systematics of the New Zealand skink fauna (Reptilia: Scincidae). Molecular phylogenetics and evolution52(2), 470-487.

Cree, A. (1994). Low annual reproductive output in female reptiles from New Zealand. New Zealand journal of zoology21(4), 351-372.

Daugherty, C. H., Patterson, G. B., Thorn, C. J., & French, D. C. (1990). Differentiation of the members of the New Zealand Leiolopisma nigriplantare species complex (Lacertilia: Scincidae). Herpetological monographs, 61-76.

Frank, H., & Wilson, D. J. (2011). Distribution, status and conservation measures for lizards in limestone areas of South Canterbury, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology38(1), 15-28.

Freeman, A. B. (1997). Comparative ecology of two Oligosoma skinks in coastal Canterbury: a contrast with Central Otago. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 153-160.

Hardy, G. S. (1977). The New Zealand Scincidae (Reptilia: Lacertilia); a taxonomic and zoogeographic study. New Zealand journal of zoology4(3), 221-325.

Hitchmough, R., Barr, B., Knox, C., Lettink, M., Monks, J. M., Patterson, G. B., Reardon, J. T., van Winkel, D., Rolfe, J., & Michel, P. (2021). Conservation status of New Zealand reptiles, 2021New Zealand threat classification series 35. Wellington: New Zealand Department of Conversation.

Jewell, T. (2008). A photographic guide to reptiles and amphibians of New Zealand. Auckland: New Holland.

Jewell, T. (2022). Discovery of an abrupt contact zone supports recognition of a new species of grass skink in southern New Zealand. Jewell Publications, Occasional Publication #2022B.

Jones, C., Moss, K., & Sanders, M. (2005). Diet of hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) in the upper Waitaki Basin, New Zealand: implications for conservation. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 29-35.

Lettink, M., & Cree, A. (2007). Relative use of three types of artificial retreats by terrestrial lizards in grazed coastal shrubland, New Zealand. Applied Herpetology4(3), 227-243.

Lettink, M., & Seddon, P. J. (2007). Influence of microhabitat factors on capture rates of lizards in a coastal New Zealand environment. Journal of Herpetology41(2), 187-196.

Liggins, L., Chapple, D. G., Daugherty, C. H., & Ritchie, P. A. (2008). A SINE of restricted gene flow across the Alpine Fault: phylogeography of the New Zealand common skink (Oligosoma nigriplantare polychroma). Molecular Ecology17(16), 3668-3683.

Lord, J. M., & Marshall, J. (2001). Correlations between growth form, habitat, and fruit colour in the New Zealand flora, with reference to frugivory by lizards. New Zealand Journal of Botany39(4), 567-576.

Mockett, S. (2017). A review of the parasitic mites of New Zealand skinks and geckos with new host records. New Zealand journal of zoology44(1), 39-48.

O’Donnell, C. F., Weston, K. A., & Monks, J. M. (2017). Impacts of introduced mammalian predators on New Zealand’s alpine fauna. New Zealand Journal of Ecology41(1), 1-22.

Patterson, G. B., & Daugherty, C. H. (1990). Four new species and one new subspecies of skinks, genus Leiolopisma (Reptilia: Lacertilia: Scincidae) from New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand20(1), 65-84.

Patterson, G. B., & Daugherty, C. H. (1995). Reinstatement of the genus Oligosoma (Reptilia: Lacertilia: Scincidae). Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand25(3), 327-331.

Reardon, J. T., & Tocher, M. (2003). Diagnostic morphometrics of the skink species, Oligosoma maccanni and O. nigriplantare polychroma, from South Island, New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Conservation.

van Winkel, D., Baling, M., Hitchmough, R. 2018. Reptiles and amphibians of New Zealand – a field guide. Auckland university press, Auckland New Zealand.

Wotton, D. M., Drake, D. R., Powlesland, R. G., & Ladley, J. J. (2016). The role of lizards as seed dispersers in New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand46(1), 40-65.