Lizards in 'nuclear families': a novel reptilian social system in Egernia saxatilis (Scincidae)

D. O'Connor, R. Shine*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

98 Citations (Scopus)


Recent research has revealed unsuspected complexity in social organization among squamate reptiles. In particular, large Australian scincid lizards of the genus Egernia have been reported to occur in large aggregations of closely related individuals. However, the 'nuclear family' structure found in many other 'social' organisms (especially birds) has not been reported from reptiles. Our field studies on black rock skinks (Egernia saxatilis) in southeastern Australia document exactly this pattern. We quantified group composition using behavioural observations at regular intervals over three field seasons, and took tissue samples for parentage analysis. On the focal rock outcrop 72% of lizards were typically found as part of a stable social grouping, with individuals physically associated with other group members in a third of observations. Eighty-five per cent of juveniles lived in social groups, 65% in family groups with at least one of their parents (including 39% with both parents as revealed by parentage analysis of five microsatellite loci). Broader sampling in surrounding areas revealed similar patterns of group size, composition and relatedness. Overall, of the groups that contained more than one adult, 83% contained a single adult pair. Long-term monogamy and group stability were evident from our genetic data, with up to three annual cohorts of full-sib offspring living with their biological parents. Our data expand the range of social systems known for reptiles, and reveal strong convergence towards 'nuclear family' systems in distantly related vertebrates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)743-752
Number of pages10
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Aggregations
  • Monogamy
  • Nuclear family
  • Paternity
  • Sociality


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