Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (4.26 MB)

Exotic Reptiles in the Pet Trade: Are They a Threat to New Zealand?

Download (4.26 MB)
posted on 2021-11-10, 10:07 authored by Kikillus, Kristina Heidy

Worldwide, invasive species are associated with severe ecological and economic impacts. As a group, reptiles are very successful invaders and in some areas where they have established they are responsible for the decline of native fauna and economic disruptions, whilst also posing a threat to human health. Due to its biogeographical isolation and unique evolutionary history, New Zealand is highly susceptible to invasive species. Importation of reptiles into New Zealand is illegal, however over a dozen species of exotic reptile are legally present in captivity and their risk of establishment is unknown. This study investigates their establishment potential and possible impacts by considering 1) the amount of trade and propagule pressure of species, 2) the degree of climate match between their native range and New Zealand, 3) areas that may be suitable for establishment based on physiological models of incubation and development, 4) their ability to transfer pathogens to native fauna and humans, and 5) overall establishment risk. The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans; RES) is the most common and easily obtained exotic reptile pet in New Zealand, with over 800 sales per annum. The RES is also the species most regularly released into the wild. Climate matching models in this study were developed to minimise false-negative predictions, to generate a suitability score irrespective of the prevalence of species records (allowing species to be easily compared to one another), and incorporated a weighted multimodel average prediction based on the relative importance of climatic variables to each species. These correlative models indicated that the blotched blue-tongue skink (Tiliqua nigrolutea) had the highest degree of climate match with parts of New Zealand, while the common blue-tongue skink (T. scincoides) had the highest proportion of land area predicted to be suitable for establishment. The other 10 species generally had both low climate match scores and limited areas within New Zealand predicted to be suitable. Mechanistic models focus upon environmental influences on physiological processes of a species, such as development and growth. Degree-day models, combined with soil measurements in potential reptile nesting sites in New Zealand, were utilised to determine if environmental conditions were suitable for the successful reproduction of oviparous exotic reptiles. These models predicted that the New Zealand environment meets the minimum thermal requirements for the incubation of eggs of RES, snake-neck turtles (Chelodina longicollis), and Reeves turtles (Chinemys reevesii). While prevalence of Salmonella in exotic reptiles is higher than that of native reptiles, it is considerably lower than that of exotic reptiles overseas. All serovars identified in this study had been previously reported both in humans and reptiles in New Zealand. The overall risk assessment for 12 species of exotic reptile kept in captivity in New Zealand indicates that blotched blue-tongue skinks and RES pose the highest establishment risk. Blotched blue-tongue skinks are allegedly only present in zoos. Therefore, based on propagule pressure, RES pose the highest establishment risk and efforts should focus on minimising release events and removing feral individuals from the New Zealand environment. In summary, at least eight species of exotic reptile legally traded within New Zealand are predicted to be capable of surviving in a portion of the New Zealand environment and at least three species have the potential to successfully breed in warmer microclimates. However, further research involving climatic tolerances and breeding potential (i.e., soil moisture content, juvenile survival, sex ratio, and predicted climate change) is recommended. Public education and possible regulations imposed on the New Zealand exotic reptile trade may prevent introductions of these species into the local environment and still allow selected species to be enjoyed by the New Zealand public. The methods developed in this study may be easily applied to other species and other geographic regions, allowing investigation into the establishment risk of alien species. This may help guide control and management efforts and help stem the tide of the growing problem of invasive species.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Ecology and Biodiversity

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Hare, Kelly; Gartrell, Brett; Hartley, Stephen