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How A Well-hidden Giant Got Uncovered: the Discovery of a New Anole Species from Hispaniola

Thursday, October 6, 2016 5:06
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(Before It's News)

Anolis landestoyi. Photo by Miguel Landestoy

My first encounter with the new Hispaniolan giant anole species was in December 2005, when leading a birdwatching tour west of Puerto Escondido, Sierra de Bahoruco, for a group from Scotland. Early one morning, just before dawn, we stopped at what was to become the type locality of the new lizard species and stayed for several minutes searching for some night birds (nightjars, poorwills and potoos) which are most active during crepuscular time windows. It became light, though still without sun. While standing next to the forest edge, the crawling of one of these giant lizards caught my eye. It was moving from a lower tree branch (presumably its roosting perch) towards the trunk and the treetop. It quickly moved out of view, disappearing within seconds. There were no chances for photography or capture.

One and a half years later, in May 2007, I was conducting a nest search for the endangered endemic Bay-breasted Cuckoo at the same locality. Starting at around 9 am, I hiked the trail that goes north in the bottom of the canyon, and nearly one hour later, I spotted two of these fairly large forest birds, foraging in the well wooded area. Closely and silently following the pair, I hid in a stalking manner behind vegetation and logs, occasionally getting my small binoculars out from my shirt pocket to see in detail behavioral events (feeding and mating were observed). This forest is pretty lush during the rainy season, and mosquitoes were everywhere, covering all exposed areas of one’s body. Somewhere between 11 and noon, on a sunny day, the pair seemed to have had enough activity and their stomachs may have been full (with all the cicadas around, that wouldn’t have been too hard). The birds were resting, not high in the trees, and away from sun. One of them was closer to me, well in view, and this same bird took off from its branch once, striking and trying to pull something off of a branch… It happened so fast that I could only pay attention to the bird. But my curiosity was piqued: there should be something on that branch… Binoculars out again, with cautious moves, I examined the branch. A slow scan revealed an extremely well camouflaged lizard, head facing down, that was also getting away from the sunny tree canopy. At first glance it resembled one of these large, big-headed anoles (wait, this looks like one of those barahonae-ricordii giants), but it was distinctly and unusually ashy and pale in coloration. I stared at the anole for some time, and when the birds were gone, it started moving lower down slowly. It came as close as 2 meters from ground, the right moment to attempt capture. Fortunately I had a bit of more luck than the birds had, and I captured the animal. Briefly studying the animal in hand, I noted the large dewlap and odd pattern, and took a few photos, but the lizard was faster than it looked! In a matter of seconds it quickly ran along the branch and then up the trunk and escaped!

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One year later, I met some great friends and professionals. Rich Glor was visiting with some students, as was Luke Mahler and some of his (Losos) lab mates and field assistants. I showed them a photo of the animal from my laptop, that only depicted the front part of the animal (head and anterior half). They had a very tight and ambitious schedule to complete during that visit, and unfortunately they weren’t able to visit that fairly distant locality.

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The following year I was taking a workshop on natural history and scientific illustration given by the acclaimed Cuban naturalist and artist Nils Navarro, and while choosing some photos for an illustration, one from the strange anole came in view. Nils, who knows the Cuban fauna very well, immediately noted its similarity with Cuban Chamaeleolis-clade anoles. To his chagrin, I told him I hadn’t secured a specimen yet, but that I would try.

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No more news from the odd looking anole, until March 2010, when I had the opportunity to re-visit the locality on my own, and dedicated some time to search for the beast. After three hours of night herping, scanning many epiphytes, tree branches, twigs, vines, leaves and trunks, I found one individual, very close from the 2005 encounter! This individual was captured and photographed. The more detailed images of the new individual revealed more unique characters, strongly pointing out the argument that was in fact a new species, and its resemblance in many aspects to the Cuban Chamaeleolis-clade was already obvious. Those photos were sent to the authors, which prompted a visit by Luke.

Nearly a week later, on April 1st, Luke was already sitting at the ministry office when we first spoke by phone that day. To Luke’s unfortunate coincidence with the current date’s event, I told Luke that I did not believe that he could take a plane so fast to the DR… “Wait, what? Luke, don’t tell me you actually came all the way down here man!” Luke responded: Yes man, I told you I would.” Me: “But I couldn’t believe you were so decided, and so responsive to those photos. Luke, honestly, those were actually taken in Cuba during my last visit to the land of Chamaeleolis.” Luke: “Are you serious man? Don’t tell me that now, Jesus!”… When I was convinced he had enough torturing, I came clean and told him it was a just a joke: “Happy April’s Fools Day amigo!” Luke was still skeptical, since he wasn’t sure I was still playing the prank, nor I was just revealing that I was in fact playing a prank to him. Bad (or actually good, indeed) timing, I guess.

Luke came not only to see the specimen I had in captivity, but also to personally visit the locality and get to know the habitat and the species in the field. After several hours of traveling, we arrived just before evening, right after a light rain shower. We began our search once Luke took some habitat photos at the day’s last light. It may have taken nearly two hours to find the first one, a male that I spotted at about 1.5 m of height, head down. Luke secured a female some minutes after, and there they were, a pair of adults! mahler-left-and-landestoy-with-newlizard-species

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Finally, after some years of hard field and lab work, the species came out of the anonymity, even though it must still be hiding deep into the dense viney and undergrowth transitional vegetation of the well wooded canyon (or more technically proper, “polje”), where the spanish moss and other epiphytes hang paradoxically within the cacti and hardwood forest surrounded by the big blocks of limestone that characterize this yet remote mountain chain. Threats are not too far from this rarity: in spite of this area being protected (Reserva Biológica Loma Charco Azul), due its proximity to the Haitian border, there is intense slash and burning agriculture in the hills west, and wood charcoal is produced in large amounts and taken to Haiti where it is the basic fuel for cooking. Is the species confined to the bottom valley of this canyon? All current knowledge point it out as very possible, which would mean that the species has a very small and highly vulnerable range.

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