Doctoral Candidate Discovered New Monitor Lizard Species on a Remote Pacific Island

​Dubbed a "biogeographical oddity" by its discoverers, the lizard species is also the first new monitor lizard to be described from the country of Papua New Guinea in over twenty years. The research group was led by led by Doctoral Candidate Valter Weijola from the Zoological Museum of the University of Turku.

Monitors play an important ecological role in many island ecosystems in the southwest Pacific. Predatory mammals have never colonized the region due to the isolation of these islands. Instead, these large, active and intelligent lizards fill the role of top-predators and scavengers. The Pacific monitor lineage to which the new species belongs have been so successful at oversea dispersal that a number of different species now occupy almost every island from the Moluccas in Indonesia to the eastern Solomon Islands and even Micronesia.

The new endemic species was observed and studied during fieldwork by Weijola and local assistants in the relatively dry coastal vegetation of Mussau, but it is likely that it also persist in the remnants of intact forest in the interior of the island.

The formally described female lizard, or holotype, measures one metre with the tail being one and a half times the length of the dominantly black-coloured body covered with yellow and orange markings. The tail of the adults shows varying degrees of turquoise to bluish pigmentation. Another distinctive feature for the species is the pale yellow tongue, which is a trait shared only by three other species of Pacific monitors. The new species is known to eat crabs, other reptiles and their eggs, and small birds.

– Usually monitors like these will eat just about anything they can catch and kill, as well as carcass and turtle eggs when available, explains Weijola.

–While young, Pacific monitor lizards are highly secretive and subsist mainly on insects and other small animals.

Isolated Approximately 1-2 Million Years

The new species, which can grow to well over a meter in length, was named Varanus semotus, a Latin reference to the remoteness and isolation of the relatively small and partly volcanic island where the lizard was found. Close examination revealed the reptile to be distinct from its relatives from New Guinea and New Britain. Genetic studies, conducted by co-authors Stephen Donnellan, South-Australian Museum, and Christer Lindqvist, Åbo Akademi University, showed that the species has been isolated for a long time, an estimated 1-2 million years, or even longer.

– Isolation is the keyword here. It is what has driven speciation and made the South-Pacific region one of the World's biodiversity hotspots. For anything to arrive on Mussau from New Guinea or New Britain, it would need to cross 250-350 kilometers of open sea, and this doesn't happen frequently. So, once the ancestor arrived, perhaps in the form of a gravid female, the population must have been completely isolated, says Veijola

– These islands are full of unique creatures often restricted in distribution to just one island or island group. Yet, we know relatively little about them. Even large species of reptiles and mammals are regularly being discovered, not to mention amphibians and invertebrates. This is what makes it such a biologically valuable and fascinating region.

The finding was published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

JV
Photo: Valter Weijola

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Published date 2/26/2016 2:25 PM ,  Modified date 2/26/2016 2:41 PM

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