Scientists recently discovered three new species of lizards that look like little dragons in South America! A new paper was published in ZooKeys by Omar Torres-Carvajal of the Museo de Zoología QCAZ, Ecuador; Kevin de Queiroz of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and Pablo Venegas, CORBIDI, Peru. We spoke with Kevin de Queiroz, from our Division of Reptiles and Amphibians, to find out more!
These “dwarf dragons” are at the small end of the dragon spectrum: they make Toothless seem like Smaug. The largest known individual of the three newly described species is only about 9 inches long, including the tail. On the other hand, they’ve got both Toothless and Smaug beat when it comes to being colorful (some of their relatives, the red-throated woodlizards, even more so), and they’re real! I should mention that some of their other relatives, the horned woodlizards, are even more dragon-like. They have crests that extend above their eyes, and the insides of their mouths are orange, like fire.
Where can we see a woodlizard?
I don’t know of any woodlizards in zoos, but it’s not something that I keep track of, so there could be some. If not, you would have to go to South or Central America to see one (a couple of the relatives of the newly discovered species occur in Panama, the rest are found only in South America). On the other hand, there are some good photographs in our publication, which you can read here.
What about those bright colors and spikes, you’re sure it’s not a pocket-sized dragon?
Many lizards in the large clade (group of species composed of an ancestral species and all of its descendants) named Iguania, which includes the woodlizards, are colorful and adorned with spikes, particularly on the head and down the middle of the back. This is especially true of adult males in breeding condition. So it’s thought that the colors and spikes evolved as the result of sexual selection, in this case, the preference of lizards to mate with members of the opposite sex that are brightly colored and adorned with spikes.
Despite their appealing looks, we discourage keeping wild animals as pets. For one thing, you would need to know a lot about the requirements of the lizards to provide them with food and conditions that will keep them healthy, and it also takes a lot of time and devotion, something that most people aren't willing or able to do. More importantly, the pet trade in exotic animals often contributes to population declines and even extinction, as the trade is difficult to regulate and the laws in place are often broken.
Why haven’t these lizards been found before? What else is lurking in the Andean rainforest?!
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the Earth and its inhabitants, particularly in some areas. On land, South American rainforests are among the more poorly known places, and woodlizards are a good example of how little we know about them: of the 15 currently known species of woodlizards, eight (more than half) have been discovered since 2000 (though the first was described in 1855). The reason that they haven’t been found before is that previously scientists hadn’t worked extensively in the areas where these lizards were found. That’s changing now, and as a consequence, we’re discovering many new species in these areas, and not only of woodlizards. But you won’t always hear about the discoveries if the plants or animals don’t catch a reporter’s eye. Woodlizards tend to get more attention because they look like little dragons.
What is tropical fieldwork like?
Fieldwork in tropical rainforests is wet and sticky and dirty!
They’re called rainforests for a good reason—it rains a lot—and as a field biologist, you’re often out walking around looking for lizards etc. in the rain. In addition, the lowland rainforests are hot and often infested with mosquitos, so working in them can be uncomfortable, to say the least. The higher elevation cloud forests are cooler, and in my opinion, more pleasant to work in, but you still get wet and dirty, particularly when you’re trying to catch lizards and other animals that try to avoid capture.
What’s next for your research?
With regard to woodlizards, I don’t have any immediate plans. Omar, my former postdoc and the first author of the publication, is continuing to do field work in Ecuador, where he lives. I’m currently working on a number of other projects, some involving lizards (extinct Anolis lizards from the island of Hispaniola, habitat specialization in mainland Anolis lizards), some involving other reptiles (the origin of turtles), and others of a more theoretical nature (developing and implementing a system governing clade names based on evolutionary trees rather than on taxonomic ranks).