KU researchers discover new lizard species for sale on Manila black market | News, Sports, Jobs

The resident reptile expert at the University of Kansas and his fellow researchers routinely scour the rainforests flipping leaves and raking stream beds for live specimens.

Rafe Brown, curator in charge of the division of herpetology at the KU Biodiversity Institute, presents one of two genetic varieties of water lizards that vary greatly from those common to the regions around Manila where KU researchers collected.

Rafe Brown, curator in charge of the division of herpetology at the KU Biodiversity Institute, shows a jar of legless lizards collected in the Philippines during a field visit by KU researchers. Pictured at left is Scott Travers, who is pursuing his doctoral studies in herpetology and has been involved in field research in the Philippines.

But that’s not where Rafe Brown and his team first encountered two previously unknown species of aquatic monitor lizards. Instead, their first glimpse of the reptiles was at pet shops in the Philippines – where they say the country’s rampant black market trade in exotic animals is threatening its ecosystem.

Brown is an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator in charge of herpetology at the KU Biodiversity Institute.

He and his colleagues have just published descriptions of their newly discovered species of lizards in the journal Zootaxa.

This description is a clear admiration.

“Both are beautiful animals, in black and white or black and yellow,” Brown said. “They are generally dark in appearance with bright patches of white or yellow spots arranged in rows and stripes around the body, as if wearing shiny collars. One reaches just over three feet long and the other is a bit larger at around four feet. They are monitor lizards, so they are alert, with big eyes, continually waving long tongues, which they “smell” with, and they are usually very alert and look quite intelligent.

The same research effort that resulted in the discovery of the new lizards also provided important insight into the illegal pet and bushmeat trade in Manila, an analysis of which Brown and his colleagues published in the journal Biological. Conservation.

Brown has been researching in the Philippines for 25 years, and his lab and storage area at Dyche Hall houses hundreds of specimens ranging from flying lizards to frogs to cobras kept in jars and chests for study.

When teams find a reptile they suspect is a new species, further steps are needed to prove it, Brown said. Sequencing the animal’s DNA, measuring it, counting its scales, examining its characteristics under a microscope and comparing it to other specimens is part of the process.

In the Philippines, Brown and his teams collected species from the wild as well as from pet stores.

When they first saw the new water monitors in pet stores, they thought they were just a genetic variant instead of a completely new species, Brown said.

But their research process proved otherwise.

It also proved that sellers of lizards were lying about their origin, a common practice Brown said threatens these and other species in the country.

New lizards for sale were billed as coming from an island from which they are not allowed to be taken, an illicit but common practice that increases the exotic factor of the animal and therefore its price, Brown said.

When Brown and his team tried to match the lizards’ DNA to the species they had found in the wild, they found no matches. So they set out to try to find the lizards from the pet store in the wild.

“We kind of did the process backwards,” he said. “We knew there was something there. We didn’t know where it came from.

Instead of the more exotic origin advertised, Brown found the species living in the wild just around Manila. Even though the lizards were much closer than expected, he said, the new species seemed threatened, especially since the species was not even officially listed until now.

“The illegal black market in Manila very clearly and systematically exploits a nearby population,” he said. “We fear that overexploitation could lead to the extinction of this species.”

Beyond newly discovered species, Brown said his research found that about half the time the reported origins of reptiles for sale did not match their true origins.

Sometimes animals, like the new lizards, were portrayed as coming from more exotic or restricted regions than they actually were. Other times, animals obtained illegally were listed as having been slaughtered in approved locations.

Either way, it’s a conservation issue, Brown said.

Sometimes origins are tampered with, allowing animals to be sold to zoos in ways that appear legal, Brown said. Other times, animals are illegally exported as exotic pets.

“People do all kinds of crazy things,” he said. “For some reason, the trade in exotic reptiles is simply out of control.”

Brown said he hopes his research will help change that, documenting species and revealing the truth about animals being sold on the black market.

It is also important to continue to develop partnerships with the Philippine government and raise awareness of the importance of the issue.

“These types of studies really do a lot to boost morale,” he said.

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