Find out how species data is stored and collected and how you can help DOC with observations.

The scheme was originally set up to look at the impact of land development on species. It is still used for this and also to gather knowledge on the distribution of native species.

Members of the public, researchers, special interest groups and government agencies can all send in their species observations.


To date over 20,000 sightings from more then 400 contributors dating as far back as 1850 have been received and processed.

The observations cover over 100 species, comprising:

  • 4 species of native frogs and 3 species of introduced frogs
  • 40 species* and 2 subspecies of geckos
  • 50 species* of native skinks, 2 subspecies and 1 introduced skink
  • 2 species and 1 subspecies of tuatara
  • 5 species of marine turtles and 2 species of marine snakes

* These figures are currently under taxonomic review

Use of the data

The distribution scheme data can have several useful purposes. These include:

  • To assess distribution, abundance and ecological requirements of native species to plan for active conservation management and surveys. 
  • To assist with taxonomic work on undescribed species of lizards.
  • To monitor the spread of introduced species of frogs and lizards.
  • To prevent the spread of accidental or deliberately introduced species.

Data collection and storage

Historically, distribution data for herpetofauna in New Zealand were scattered amongst agencies and individuals. In the late 1960s Tony Whitaker (then Ecology Division, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR)) began collecting distribution information of lizards in order to answer questions on the effect of land development on herpetofauna.

During the 1970s, much of this information was provided by the Ecology Division and the New Zealand Herpetological Society.  Eventually the scheme became an Ecology Division project and was handed on to Bruce Thomas (then Ecology Division, DSIR, Nelson) in 1977.

It became obvious that the Ecology Division could not devote the staff and facilities required to develop an updated collation, storage and retrieval system, and in 1983 the unprocessed information was passed to the Wildlife Service (Department of Internal Affairs), which undertook to computerise the data with the assistance of Ross Pickard (Department of Lands and Survey) in 1984.

Database development phases

  • In 1987, Geoff Patterson developed the Amphibian and Reptile Distribution Scheme (ARDS), stored in Dbase II, and in the same year, administration of ARDS was passed to DOC. This resulted in a published booklet containing a series of maps by Ross Pickard and Dave Towns (1988).
  • In 1993, Geoff Patterson and Duncan Cunningham developed a nationally available ARDS records retrieval system called ‘BIOSITE’ using ORACLE.
  • In 1998 another database evolved, known as the National Amphibian and Reptile Database (NARDS) scheme (Mandy Tocher), in Microsoft Access, and later SpecCard V1.0 and V2.0.
  • In 2001, Dr. Mandy Tocher and Benno Kappers (MSc) developed BioWeb Herpetofauna, DOC’s web-based herpetological distribution database, using Microsoft SQL Server, as the new host for SpecCard and ARDS data.

BioWeb Herpetofauna enabled approved stakeholders, universities, regional councils and external experts to view full datasets of current and historical herpetological records (numbering at least 20,000 records) previously accessible only to a select few within DOC.

The data contained within BioWeb Herpetofauna has recently undergone several stages of verification for accuracy:

  • The first involved a review of SpecCard Access database records (Wildlife Service) by A.H. Whitaker in 2001.
  • The second comprised of adjustments to the NZMS 260 metric map series for all records. 
  • A third stage saw the use of the ArcReader 9.1 Geographical Information System (GIS) program to further verify location records. 
  • The final stage involved a review of all species information by Tony Jewell in 2007 and Dr. Rod Hitchmough, Dr. Mandy Tocher, Dr. Phil Bishop and Dave Towns in 2008.

Identification of species

A difficulty in contributing records into ARDS will be identifying the observed species correctly. This is not always an easy task, particularly where many taxa are taxonomically indeterminate or cryptic.

At present, Jewell & Morris 2008 Photographic guide to reptiles & amphibians of New Zealand is the most recent guide on lizard, amphibian and marine reptile identification. It provides keys and colour photographs.

Towns (1985) also provides a key to lizards of New Zealand, but is also out-of-date. Older popular publications such as Barnett (1985) and Robb (1986) are available in libraries, but these will not include current taxonomy and exclude the many new species identified since.

Hitchmough (1997), in an unpublished thesis, provides the most recent taxonomic review of the Hoplodactylus genus, and Bauer (1990) for all New Zealand geckos. R. Hitchmough (pers. comm.) and A. Bauer are currently describing the several new species identified in Hitchmough (1997). Hardy (1977) provides the last published extensive taxonomic review of the New Zealand skinks. Patterson & Daugherty (1990, 1994), Patterson (1997), Jewell & Leschen (2004) and Chapple & Patterson (2007) provide recent species descriptions. D. Chapple, G. Patterson, T. Bell and T. Jewell are currently preparing manuscripts to describe several new species of skinks.

There are various regional guides, booklets or plans that may assist in identification. Tony Jewell’s guide to the identification of Otago geckos is very useful and provides a key (Jewell 2006). There are field keys for the Mackenzie Basin (Whitaker 1998, Reardon & Tocher 2003), Nelson/Marlborough (Whitaker 2000), Bay of Plenty (Whitaker 2001) and Tongariro/Taupo (Whitaker 2002). Lettink & Whitaker (2004) produced a field guide to the lizards of Banks Peninsula.

Another herpetological source is the dynamically updated NZ Lizards database (Bell 2008), which includes in-depth species synopses that can assist in highly accurate species identification. The NZ Lizards species synopses database is in preparation and is scheduled to go online in mid-2009. Tuatara have had some recent taxonomical changes since Gill & Whitaker (2001), but as tuatara exist only in relictual or translocated populations, locality information is sufficient to identify the species recorded.


All native herpetofauna are protected by the Wildlife Act 1983, Conservation Act 1987, and Section 6 (c) of the Resource Management Act 1991.

Permits are required from DOC for handling all protected species, and for handling all species in protected areas. Outside Conservation reserves, no permits are required when distribution data are to be based upon introduced species.

Much of the species are rare or highly restricted in distribution and the legislation protecting these animals is therefore enforced strictly.

As it will not be possible to identify many species without handling, applications to carry out surveys involving protected species should include:

  • details of the areas to be covered
  • names of the people involved in the survey
  • and dates of the survey period.

Permits may be given to private individuals competent in the field of herpetology, but it is usually preferred that the work is co-ordinated through DOC, a research institution, or conservation organisation. See Permit application forms.

A condition of all permits issued is that a report on the work carried out is forwarded to the DOC office providing the permit. Where surveys are conducted, returning the completed amphibian and reptile distribution cards is usually regarded as a substitute for a written report.

Marine snakes and turtles are regarded as fully protected members of the native fauna of New Zealand. All turtles known from waters around New Zealand are internationally recognised as endangered and should not be captured or disturbed unless clearly stressed or injured. Marine snakes are venomous and should not be approached.

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