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Luzon Dragon Lizard Discovered

Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 6th, 2010

A dragon-sized, fruit-eating lizard (genus Varanus) that was ethnoknown to locals but unknown to Western science has been discovered on the northern Philippines island of Luzon. Scientists have confirmed it as a new species, on Tuesday, April 6, 2010.

The two meter-long Varanus bitatawa was found by University of Kansas students during an expedition during the summer of 2009 to the heavily populated and largely deforested Luzon Island. DNA testing has placed the fruit-eating species in the Komodo dragon family. The discovery was described as an “unprecedented surprise” by scientists documenting the find in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters journal.

The brightly colored forest monitor lizard can grow to more than six feet in length but weighs only about 22 pounds (10 kg), said Rafe Brown of the University of Kansas, whose team confirmed the find.

“It lives up in trees, so it can’t get as massive as the Komodo dragon, a huge thing that eats large amounts of fresh meat,” Brown said by telephone. “This thing is a fruit-eater and it’s only the third fruit-eating lizard in the world.”

Discovering such a large vertebrate species is extremely rare, Brown said. The lizard, a new species of the genus Varanus, is skittish and able to hide from humans, its primary predators, which could explain why it has gone undetected by scientists for so long.

Biologists first saw photographs of the big, skinny lizard in 2001, when those surveying the area passed hunters carrying the lizards’ colorful carcasses, but the species at that point had never been given a scientific identification.

In the next few years, Brown said, ethnobiologists kept hearing stories “about these two kinds of lizard that everyone liked to eat because their flesh tasted better than the ones that lived on the ground; this thing was described as bigger and more brightly colored.”

The two kinds of lizard described by the local people were two names for the same animal, Brown said.

In 2009, graduate students at the end of a two-month expedition kept seeing signs of the big lizard. There were claw-scratches on trees and clumps of pandanus trees, whose fruit the lizard prefers.

The clumps indicated that the lizards had eaten pandanus fruit and then excreted the seeds in clusters.

“It was literally in the last couple days of the expedition, we were running out of money and food and this was the payoff: they finally got this gigantic animal,” Brown said.

Hunters who had heard of the team’s interest brought a barely-alive adult male lizard to their camp. The team euthanized the animal and did genetic tests that confirmed it as a unique species, Brown said.

DNA analysis showed there was a deep genetic divergence between the new lizard and its closest relative, Gray’s monitor lizard, which is also a fruit-eater but lives on the southern end of Luzon, rather than the northern end where the forest monitor lizard lives.

“They are extremely secretive,” Brown said of the new species. “I think that centuries of humans hunting them have made the existing populations … very skittish and wary and we never see them. They see and hear us before we have a chance to see them, they scamper up trees before we have a chance to come around.”

These findings were published in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters, with additional work by scientists in the Philippines and the Netherlands.

Reuters

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


5 Responses to “Luzon Dragon Lizard Discovered”

  1. jodzilla responds:

    Cool.

  2. Cryptoraptor responds:

    It’s a fruit eater, but does that mean it doesn’t eat insects or small rodents as well? Also, does it have the poisonous saliva like Komodo dragons? At some point they’ll have the answers… ;)

    Largest Komodo dragon verified was just over 10 feet long and weighed 370 lbs, including undigested food. These newly discovered tree dwellers are over 6 feet long but surprisingly only weigh about 22 lbs.

    The Komodo dragon, to me, is one of the scariest animals, in no small part to their blood poisoning saliva, as well as monsterous looks and surprising agility.

  3. Banaticus responds:

    I hope that wasn’t the last one that they just put down. The hunters brought a barely alive one, but could it have been saved? It sounds like it already meets the endangered criteria.

  4. dwindell responds:

    what I find amazing about this is that it isn’t getting more press!!!

    Honestly, how often are new land-dwelling vertebreas of this size discovered? Add to that the fact that it’s one of only 3 species of fruit-eating lizards, and you have a truly remarkable find! This is Cryptozoology at it’s “Mountain Gorilla” finest….a creature that is of significant size, is ethno-known, has incredible features that are distinct from known species…truly a special piece of news that deserves more play!

  5. Sordes responds:

    I highly doubt that there are only three known fruit-eating lizards in the world. The occasional consumption of fruits is already known from some other monitors, and it is well known that a lot of “real” lizards consume fruits quite often, especially the large species. Especially the the large to giant lizards of the Canary islands (from which some were thought to be extinct and were later rediscoverd) consume very often fruits. In some regions they are even seen as a pest species when they feed on fruits at gardens and plantations. I have seen those lizards myself eating tomatoes and fruits. There is even a spectacular case of an introduced population of wall lizards on an island of Croatia, which evolved herbivory within only 30 years. They evolved larger heads and a stronger bites, and even complex changes of the digestive system to deal better with plant material. And this wall lizards don´t just consume fruits or vegetables but leaves. Furthermore they developed different social structures.

    To add something about sizes: The komodo dragon is one of those animals whose dimensions are highly frequently exagerated. Specimens over 50 kg (with empty stomach) are already highly exceptional. It gives not a good idea of the whole animal if the sizes of dragons are given, which were bloated with prey. The very heaviest one with confirmed weight (and empty stomach) was 81 kg.
    Komodo-dragons are very stocky animals, and compared to their size, they have only very short tails. In contrast species like the newly discovered Varanus bitatawa have like most other monitors a proportionally long tail and are lesser bulky than komodo dragons. So it is not surprising that a lean and long-tailed monitor can weigh only 22 Ibs at 2 m. The snout-vent-length, which gives a much better idea about the actual size, is probably only around 80 cm for this new species. In contrast the SVL of the 81 kg komodo dragon was 154 cm. Weight increases with the cube, and if you take this as a basis for comparison calculations, things work quite well. At a SVL of 154 cm, this particularly huge komodo dragon had a full length of 304 cm (i.e. its tail was not even half of the total length). Theoretically this is only 50% longer than a 2 m Varanaus bitatawa, what would (at similar body proportions) indicate to a weight-difference at the factor of 3,375. But this doesn´t work, as they have very different body proportions. If only SVL is compared, the comparison of 154 cm and 80 cm leads to a calculated weight difference at the factor of 7,13. Multiplied with the given weight of 22 Ibs, we get roughly 70 kg. Now given the fact that komodo dragons are still overall bulkier than V. bitatawa, it works perfectly, so 22 Ibs is really not an unrealistic weight for a 2 m monitor.



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