Photographer captures baby goannas digging their way out of termite mounds on Mt Ainslie
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Photographer captures baby goannas digging their way out of termite mounds on Mt Ainslie

It may sound like the premise for a science fiction film but there are giant lizards hatching out of termite mounds in the middle of Canberra.

Canberra historian and conservationist Matthew Higgins captured the moment a rare Rosenberg's monitor poked its head out of a termite mound after hatching on Mount Ainslie.

Rosenberg monitors are hatching on Mt AInslie in Canberra. These rare goannas can grow to 1.5 m in length and lay their eggs in termite mounds.

Rosenberg monitors are hatching on Mt AInslie in Canberra. These rare goannas can grow to 1.5 m in length and lay their eggs in termite mounds.Credit:Matthew Higgins

Mr Higgins had been keeping an eye on the mound since he saw a Rosenberg's monitor he'd dubbed Rosie lay eggs in there in January.

"They use termite mounds because the mound acts like an incubation chamber," Mr Higgins said.

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A Rosenberg's monitor on Mt Ainslie.

A Rosenberg's monitor on Mt Ainslie. Credit:Matthew Higgins

Rosie and her partner Rex guarded the nest until February. Unlike the Lace monitor, the parents do not return to help dig their hatchlings out and the little goannas are left to claw their way to the surface on their own.

As September rolled around, Mr Higgins started to trek daily up the mountain with the hope of witnessing something remarkable. He was not disappointed.

"At first it didn't catch my eye but when I looked at it again I thought 'that's a hatchling hole'. I'd only seen one of these holes before but as I waited, sure enough the hatchlings inside started to poke their heads out."

Mr Higgins has identified 14 hatchlings in total. If they reach maturity, the baby Rosenberg's monitors will grow to 1.5 metres in length.

This Rosenberg's monitor might be small now but they can grow to 1.5 metres in length.

This Rosenberg's monitor might be small now but they can grow to 1.5 metres in length.Credit:Matthew Higgins

The hatchlings will live inside the mound eating the termites for some time, before burrowing their way out for the final time and disappearing into the bush.

"The poor old termites have their house nearly destroyed by these goannas and they do all the repairs and then they get eaten for their trouble," he said.

Rosenberg's monitors are listed as threatened throughout most of their range in Australia.

Mr Higgins first spotted this elusive species atop Mt Ainslie three years ago and has worked with the ACT government's senior ecologist Don Fletcher to monitor their breeding cycle.

"They're very difficult animals so find because they're extremely well camouflaged and they know how to hide from people, they just stay still under some fallen branches. You could be right on top of them and not know that they're there," Mr Higgins said.

The next stage of the project will be to determine how many of these evasive reptiles are left across the ACT.

But Mr Higgins said witnessing the birth of the next generation of Rosenberg's monitors was a "golden moment".

"It was such a beautiful moment because it represented the continuation of a very special species," Mr Higgins said.

ACT Parks and Conservation director Daniel Iglesias said it was wonderful to see Mt Ainslie supporting this species.

"Mt Ainslie is a very important component of the natural environment here in Canberra. It is also one of our most popular reserves so visitors should please remember the area is home to many reptiles and other wildlife. Responsible use of the reserve, including ensuring dogs are kept on a leash, will help give these hatchlings and other native wildlife the best chance of survival."

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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