Scientists discover unknown lizard species at lunch buffet
- Villagers ate the local lizards in restaurants
- The species is unique: all lizards are female
- Many new “discoveries” are old news to locals
(CNN) — This may be an old reserve menu for Vietnamese diners, but it has turned into an assortment of discoveries for scientists.
Researchers have identified a previously undocumented all-female species of lizard in the Mekong Delta that can reproduce by cloning, and the story of its discovery is almost as exotic as the animal itself.
Leiolepis ngovantrii is a small lizard found only in southern Vietnam. A Vietnamese reptile scientist who encountered tanks full of remarkably similar reptiles in small restaurants in rural villages in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province was intrigued when he noticed that all the lizards appeared to be female.
So the scientist, Ngo Van Tri from the Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology, contacted an American colleague about what he was seeing. His friend – a herpetologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, California – immediately dropped everything to come and assess the find.
Discovery of a lizard by a professor in Vietnam
Dr. Lee Grismer and his son, Jesse Grismer, a PhD candidate, flew to Hanoi and then had to make a grueling two-day motorcycle trip to a restaurant where the owner promised to set aside a reserve of creatures for study.
But there was a small problem, says Grismer.
“Unfortunately the owner ended up getting drunk and grilling them all for his customers…so when we arrived there was nothing left.”
Faced with an empty tank and nearly dashed hopes, the men inquired at other cafes in the area for the local specialty and hired children to hunt down as many lizards as they could find.
The team soon had over 60 and realized they had something special on their hands: a previously undocumented species.
“It’s a whole new line of life that was eaten and sold in restaurants for food,” says Grismer. “But that’s something scientists have missed for hundreds of years.”
DNA sampling on the tiny reptiles brought another surprise: All of the lizards were females and clones of their mothers.
It’s a rare trait, but not unheard of. Some species of lizards and fish can adapt to parthenogenesis or self-fertilization, especially in the face of unfavorable environments, pollution or overhunting.
Grismer suspects that the lizards are a hybrid mix of two similar lizard species in the area, but which is not sterile and is adapted to the growing population of human farmers around it.
In fact, while scientists once led great expeditions into the most remote areas to find new animals, Grismer says today that this new frontier quite often lies in people’s backyards.
“What we’re seeing is that local people know so much about the natural history of the areas they live in,” he says, adding that harnessing local knowledge has led to many new lizard discoveries. . “It’s not that they aren’t known…the locals know everything about them. They’re just not known to scientists.”
So what does a plate full of Leiolepis ngovantrii look like?
Well, nothing like chicken, says Grismer.
“You wouldn’t want to replace it with a Big Mac or something,” he says, and you won’t be seeing the lizard’s banh mi showing up on menus anytime soon.
Grismer complained that he had to hold his breath while eating the local dish to appear polite to restaurateurs.
“You take a bite of it and it feels like something very old and dead in your mouth,” he said.