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In the rugged heathlands of southern Australia, an unexpected hero has emerged in the battle against a costly agricultural pest.

Giant lizards known as heath goannas are stepping up as nature’s clean-up crew, providing a much-needed solution to a pervasive problem for sheep farmers. These scavenging reptiles can grow up to five feet in length and are natives to the heathlands – or shrublands – of southern Australia.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered that these scavenging reptiles reduce blowfly populations by consuming maggot-ridden animal carcasses, according to a new study conducted at 18 sites across the Marna Banggara Rewilding Project area on Australia’s southern Yorke Peninsula.

In it, the team placed hundreds of dead rats at various feeding stations – all monitored by camera traps – across the landscape to observe scavenger activity.

Their findings showed that heath goannas and other native scavengers are more effective at controlling blowfly populations than introduced European species such as red foxes.

The team explained that the lizard’s presence and effectiveness can help reduce the incidence of “fly strike” a devastating condition where blowfly larvae burrow into sheep flesh, causing painful wounds, reducing market value, and often leading to death.

The disease costs the Australian sheep farming industry about $186 million annually.

“Blowflies are a massive problem for the Australian sheep farming industry – they cause a horrible disease that is expensive for farmers to manage and a real animal welfare problem for sheep,” said Tom Jameson of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, in a statement.

Boosting heath goanna populations not only benefits native wildlife but also offers significant advantages to local agriculture and wildlife tourism.

“The results suggest that conservation work should focus on removing invasive species and boosting populations of native species because they’re really important for the wider ecosystem,” Jameson said.

The Marna Banggara project, supported by the Indigenous Narungga traditional owners, aims to restore ecosystem health by reintroducing native species.

Since European settlers introduced red foxes and cats in the 18th century, more than 90 percent of native mammals in the region have become extinct.

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