Spectacular new species of giant fruit-eating lizard discovered in the Sierra Madres of the northern Philippines

A new species of monitor lizard has been discovered by an international team of biologists in the Sierra Madres in the northern Philippines. The new species has been given a new scientific name — Varanus bitatawa — in recognition of its distinctive character.

Scientists first discovered the new species when biologists surveying the Sierra Madre Range photographed an Agta hunter with an animal he had captured for food. Several years later, the first specimens were obtained by Mr. Roldan Dugay and Dr. Arvin Diesmos, Curator of Herpetology at the National Museum in Manila.

“Apparently the new species is an important source of protein for indigenous people groups in Isabella and Aurora provinces,” Dr Diesmos said. However, it wasn’t until last year that a joint University of Kansas and National Museum of the Philippines expedition to Aurora Province produced a large adult specimen and good DNA samples.

The scientific description of this reptile was published this week in Biology Lettersan international journal published by the Royal Society of London.

According to the description, the northern Sierra Madre forest monitor is up to 2 meters long, displays bright yellow and black stripes and spots on its back, and eats mainly fruits and snails. Through analysis of its physical characteristics and DNA, scientists have determined that it is distinct but closely related to two other fruit-eating monitor lizards in the Philippines. It is also different from the more common carnivorous water monitor or Bayawak. The new species is more secretive and spends most of its time on trees in the forests of Luzon’s northern Sierra Madre mountain range.

University of Kansas graduate student Luke Welton, one of the co-authors of the scientific description, was one of the first biologists to see a live lizard from the northern Sierra Madre in Aurora Province. “I knew as soon as I saw the animal that it was something special,” Welton said. “I had seen specimens of the other two species of fruit-eating monitor lizards, but none of the other known species are as spectacular as the northern Sierra Madre forest monitor.”

Fruit-eating giant monitor lizards are found only in the Philippines. The northern Sierra Madre monitor lizard is known among local residents of Aurora Province as Butikaw. Another species, Gray’s monitor lizard, is known as Butan by people from southern Luzon, Bicol, Catanduañes and the Polillo group of islands. The other fruit-eating monitor lizard on the island of Panay is known locally as the Mabitang. All three species of fruit-eating giant monitor lizards are threatened by the destruction of their forest habitats and, to a lesser extent, by hunting for their meat and the pet trade.

“We hope that by focusing on the protection of this new monitor, conservation biologists and policy makers can work together to protect the highly threatened remaining forests of northern Luzon,” said Dr Rafe Brown, Head of the team that discovered the new species and curator. -in charge of the Division of Herpetology, Biodiversity Institute of the University of Kansas.

“The new species can serve as a practical ‘flagship species’ for conservation, attracting public attention and offering protection to many unrelated species if its habitat is preserved,” Dr Brown added.

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Material provided by University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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