Galliwasps are burrowing, skink-like lizards found in the Americas and the Caribbean. Of the 51 species of galliwasps, four are found on the islands of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Jamaica: Jamaican giant galliwasps, Come Hombre giant galliwasps, Carreau’s giant galliwasps and Haitian giant galliwasps. The Jamaican giant galliwasp has not been reported in over 100 years and has been listed as possibly extinct. From the Dominican Republic, the Come Hombre giant galliwasp is known from only four wild specimens and is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, while Carreau’s giant galliwasp is listed as endangered.
The Haitian giant galliwasp (Celestus warreni) from northern Haiti has historically been reported as locally common, but is now only found in a small protected area. In 2004, scientists noticed an 80% reduction in Haitian giant galliwasp population size over the previous twenty years, causing the IUCN to list the species as critically endangered. Today, Haitian giant galliwasps are considered vulnerable. Habitat loss, predation by invasive species like mongooses and hunting by local people who mistakenly consider the lizards to be venomous are the main threats to galliwasp populations.
HERE, AT NASHVILLE ZOO
Haitian giant galliwasps first appeared in U.S. zoos in the 1980s, and by 1990 was listed by the AZA as a high priority for conservation work. Unfortunately, by the mid-1990s, there were no Haitian giant galliwasps remaining in zoos. In July 2000, Nashville Zoo’s Ectotherm Curator, Dale McGinnity, traveled to Haiti to collect a founder population of 19 adult Haitian giant galliwasps to initiate a breeding program and conservation initiative for the species.
The inability to successfully raise young giant galliwasps is the primary reason captive programs have failed in the past, but Nashville Zoo staff has developed protocols that have allowed them to raise over 300 offspring with a mortality rate of less than 4%. Many of these offspring have been sent to other zoos around the world to initiate more breeding and conservation programs. Today, the Zoo’s population of Haitian giant galliwasps is composed of 90% genetic diversity and serves as a genetic reserve colony. Eventually, the Zoo hopes to reintroduce the reserve colony of galliwasps to their native environment.
Research efforts at the Zoo have expanded what is known about galliwasps. Previously, the captive longevity of Haitian giant galliwasps was thought to be 11 years, but many of the founding members of Nashville Zoo’s breeding population are now 17+ years old. In addition, the Zoo’s successful husbandry protocols are being shared with other institutions.
In 2017, a Nashville Zoo keeper completed an AZA-approved studbook for Haitian giant galliwasps. Studbooks document the pedigree and demographic history of each animal within a managed population among AZA member institutions. The goal of an AZA studbook is to maintain 90% of the captive population’s genetic diversity for 100 years.
Ectotherm Curator, Dale McGinnity, in Haiti in 2000.
Galliwasp in the Zoo's reserve colony.
Nashville Zoo's Haitian giant galliwasp breeding facility.
OTHER GALLIWASP SPECIES
In addition to the Haitian giant galliwasp, Nashville Zoo’s herpetology department has been working with the Central American giant galliwasp for almost two decades. This species is rarely seen in the wild and extremely uncommon in zoo collections because of similar breeding challenges to those of the Haitian giant galliwasp. In 2016, the Zoo produced four Central American giant galliwasp hatchlings and has since continued to research the best husbandry and breeding practices for the species. As of 2018, Nashville Zoo is the only Zoo to successfully breed this rarely seen lizard.
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