New species of alligator lizard discovered in Mexico

An international team of researchers has discovered a new species of the genus lizard Abronia living in the forests of western Chiapas, Mexico.

Abronia morenica on a tree branch. Image credit: Adam Clause.

Abronia is a large genus of medium-sized insectivorous arboreal lizards that are commonly referred to as abronias or alligator lizards.

These lizards belong to the family Anguidae and are endemic in Mexico and northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

They mainly live mountain cloud forests where they are associated with epiphytes in the canopy of large mature oaks or pines. They give birth to between one and twelve live babies once a year.

The new species, named Abronia morenica, is only known from the vicinity of the type locality in the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, a center of endemism of global importance.

“It’s this prehistoric forest from another world. You are walking through swirls of dense mist from the passing clouds, and the trees are dripping with bromeliads, ferns and orchids, ”said Dr Adam Clause, postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“The lizard is one of a remarkable collection of iconic animals that live in these isolated forests, such as jaguars, spider monkeys, and birds like the Resplendent Quetzal and the Horned Guan.”

“We are proud to add this lizard to this list and to recognize the tremendous work the community of Sierra Morena is doing to manage the forest,” he added.

“Our big goal is to help them develop economically sustainable ways to continue to protect it.”

The scientific name of the lizard, Abronia morenica, pays homage to the unusual brown coloring of adult males (moreno, in Spanish, often means brown skin) as well as to the nearby town that supported scientists in the discovery, Sierra Morena.

“It’s difficult, and it’s one of the reasons it took scientists so long to learn that these lizards even existed,” said Dr Clause.

“When you go out looking for them, luck is a big factor. These lizards are so mysterious, it’s a pleasure to spot a single individual, let alone an entirely new species.

Due in part to its known small range, Dr Clause and colleagues at the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente e Historia Natural and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México recommend that Abronia morenica be classified as In danger on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Among other threats to their long-term survival, living on top of a mountain makes these lizards particularly vulnerable to climate change.

“The discovery shows how little we know about our natural world, especially in areas where humans rarely walk,” said Dr Clause.

“We still have so much to learn about the species living in these exploratory frontiers, like the forest canopy.”

“We can leverage new findings like this to create support for larger conservation initiatives that can ultimately help both people and wildlife. “

“It’s not just about this species, it’s what the species means to the community. For them, it is a source of great pride and they want to do their part to protect it.

“It’s inspiring and gives us all great hope for the future of this biodiversity hotspot. “

The discovery is reported in a paper in the review Herpetology.

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Adam G. Clause et al. 2020. A new species of Abronia (Squamata: Anguidae) from a protected area in Chiapas, Mexico. Herpetology 76 (3): 330-343; doi: 10.1655 / Herpetologica-D-19-00047

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