Celebrating World Lizard day with amazing discoveries

This August 14, we’re looking back to the most impressive lizard discoveries we’ve witnessed throughout the years.

World Lizard Day is a great way to raise awareness of these curious reptiles and their conservation needs; it is also a good excuse to look at pretty lizard pictures! Today, we’re doing a bit of both.

At Pensoft, we’ve published many new lizard species, some of them rare and truly fascinating. This August 14, we’re looking back to the most impressive lizard discoveries we’ve witnessed throughout the years.

The Dracula lizard

This beautiful lizard, described in 2018, comes from the Andean slopes of southwestern Colombia and northwestern Ecuador. It inhabits evergreen low montane forests, and is only known from a relatively small territory of approximately 1582 km2. Its prey most often consists of insects, spiders and worms.

Contrary to what you might think, this species was not named after the eponymous vampire count, but rather after some beautiful tropical flowers.

The specific epithet dracula refers to the Dracula Reserve, which is located within the lizard’s distribution and near its type locality. The Reserve protects an area with a high diversity of orchids of the genus Dracula.

Published in ZooKeys.

The tiny chameleon

This lizard friend, known as Brookesia tedi, is less than 3 cm long! It is more than ten times smaller than the longest known chameleon, Furcifer oustaleti. Its size makes it difficult to find, and as a result, challenging to study. Its description, published in 2019, helped resolve a 50-year old identity question.

Living at 1300 m above sea level on the Marojejy massif in northeastern Madagascar, Brookesia tedi lives is brown in colour, its tail and the back of its head grey.

The researchers consider it Vulnerable but worry that improper protection on Marojejy, as well as fires, could rapidly drive the species to becoming Critically Endangered.

Published in Zoosystematics and Evolution.

The charismatic wood lizard

Enyalioides feiruzae is a colourful and highly variable lizard – especially its males, who can have brownish turquoise, gray, or greenish brown backs traced with pale lines. Females, in turn, can be greenish brown or floury brown, with faint dark brown lines on their back, limbs and tail, and spots on the sides. The team behind its discovery spent seven years in the area searching for amphibians and reptiles before describing it.

The species comes from the Tropical Andes, and more specifically – from the Huallaga River basin, an area which is still poorly studied because for a long time it was disturbed by civil wars.

The Feiruz wood lizard was named after another reptile, Feiruz the iguana – “muse and lifelong friend”.

The spotted monitor lizard

Mussau is a small island in northeastern Papua New Guinea. The top predator on it? A lizard.

Varanus semotus has been isolated from related species for an estimated one to two million years, with its closest relatives several hundred kilometers away.

Even so, science discovered it only recently.

The one-meter-long lizard has a black body with yellow and orange markings and a pale yellow tongue, with a turquoise to blue tail. These animals “will eat just about anything they can catch and kill,” study author Valter Weijola told the Washington Post.

As the only large terrestrial generalist predator and scavenger on the island, Varanus semotus may fill an important ecological function, making it of particular conservation concern.

Published in ZooKeys.

The black iguana

What makes Iguana melanoderma so distinct is its black color; in fact, it only gets blacker with age. The species was discovered in Saba and Montserrat islands, the Lesser Antilles (Eastern Caribbean), to which it is endemic.

However, it is threatened by unsustainable harvesting (including pet trade), and competition and hybridization from invasive alien iguanas from South and Central America.

A greater focus on biosecurity, the minimization of hunting, and habitat conservation, would help its conservation, the researchers write in their paper.

In Saba, Iguana melanoderma lives on cliffs, in trees and bushes, in shrublands, and deciduous woodlands. It lives in a foggy and cool environment up to about 500 m a.s.l. and sunbathes as soon as the sun rises.

Published in ZooKeys.

Bonus: Illegal lizard trade might be closer than you think

Dubbed “miniature Godzilla” and “the Holy Grail of Herpetology,” the earless monitor lizard is endemic to Borneo. Legally, it can neither be traded within Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, nor exported out of them.

Even so, reptile enthusiasts and unscrupulous traders have long been smuggling small numbers of earless monitor lizards, eventually bringing them to Europe.

A new study reported that accredited zoos have acquired individuals of the protected lizard, without any evidence of legal export.

“Zoos that continue to obtain animals that have been illegally acquired, directly or indirectly, are often fuelling the illegal wildlife trade, supporting organised crime networks and possibly contributing to the decline in some species,” Vincent Nijman, author of the study, told us.

Published in Nature Conservation.

“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 3

“This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium when it is considered a true pet.”

In this last part, we talked with ichthyologist Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá about what makes Astronotus mikoljii – a new to science cichlid species that he recently described in ZooKeys – so special.

Find Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview.

What makes this species so charismatic and loved by aquarists and ichthyologists?

I already spoke about my experience as an aquarist from an early age, where the qualities of the species of the Astronotus genus, known as Oscars are highlighted.

Different varieties and color patterns have been obtained from them through selective breeding, or genetic manipulation, which are called living modified organisms (LMOs) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However, the true lovers of nature, the aquarians of the “Biotope Aquarium” movement  and the like, prefer pure specimens to manipulated or artificially modified ones. This is why Mikolji’s Oscar is a highly appreciated species in the aquarium hobby. It is more than just a fish in an aquarium since it is considered a true pet.

For ichthyologists, it is remarkably interesting and at the same time very challenging to study a genus like Astronotus, which already has only three described species (Astronotus ocellatus, A. cassiprinnis and A. mikoljii).

This is an unusual situation, which, as we have reported, requires an integrative approach and the work and experience of different specialists for its study. With all certainty, as in the case of Mikolji’s Oscar, other species of the genus Astronotus remain to be studied and described, and we hope that we will have the fortune to participate with our experience in these new works.

Local people have long known this species. What role does it have in their lives?

It is important to clarify that Astronotus mikoljii is a new species for science, but it is not a “new species” for people who already knew it locally under the name of Pavona, Vieja, or Cupaneca in Venezuela or Pavo Real, Carabazú, Mojarra and Mojarra Negra in Colombia. Nor for the aquarium trade, where it was known by the common name of Oscar and scientific name of Astronotus ocellatus, or, to a lesser degree, as Astronotus cassiprinnis.

This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups.

Much less is it a new species for the nine thousand-year-old indigenous ethnic groups that share their world with the habitat of this fish, who baptized it with some 14 different names, known in their languages as mijsho (Kariña), boisikuajaba (Warao), hácho (Pumé = Yaruro), phadeewa, jadaewa (Ye’Kuana = Makiritare), perewa, parawa (Eñepá = Panare), yawirra (Kúrrim = Kurripako), kohukohurimï, kohokohorimï, owënawë kohoromï” (Yanomami = Yanomamï), eba (Puinave), Itapukunda (Kurripako), uan (Tucano).

Hence, the importance of scientific names, since the same species can have multiple common names, in the same language or in multiple languages.

It is important to note that very few studies that describe new species for science include the common names of the species, as given by the indigenous ethnic groups or natives of the regions, where the species live.

This species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups, and for more than 500 years to the hundreds of human communities of locals who inhabit the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia. In our studies, in the plains of Orinoco from 30 years ago, we were able to verify its consumption, as well as high gastronomic value, due to its pleasant taste and enhanced texture.

However, due to my imprint as an aquarist, I have not wanted to consume it on the different occasions that it was offered to me, because it is very difficult to eat the beloved pets that we had in our childhood.

Why is this fish important to people and to ecosystems?

It is especially important to highlight that the Astronotus mikoljii species plays a very important role in the ecosystem, due to its biological and ecological background.

Although it can feed from different sources, it is a fundamentally carnivorous species, and therefore, it “controls” other species in the ecosystem.

Without Mikolji’s Oscar, the aquatic ecosystem would lose one of its fundamental links and the delicate balance of its functioning, because the species it feeds on could increase their populations uncontrollably, becoming veritable pests. This would put in great danger the entire future of the aquatic ecosystem of the Orinoco River basin and the permanence of other species of ecological importance.

In addition, it would surely affect other species used by man, both those of commercial importance (sold as food or as ornamental species), and for the subsistence fishing of native and indigenous inhabitants.

Mikolji’s Oscar, although a carnivorous species, also has its natural predators, for example piranhas and other predatory fish. For this reason, it evolved with an ocellus, or false eye, at the base of the caudal fin, to confuse its predators and guarantee its survival. Obviously, this species will be compromised if we don’t learn about it, use its populations wisely and preserve it in the long term.

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Photos by Ivan Mikolji.

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You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of the interview with Oscar.

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“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 2

“Working in science in a country under these conditions, and getting to publish the results of the investigations in high-level scientific journals such as ZooKeys, is an act of “true heroism”.

Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá, MSc. is a Spanish-Venezuelan ichthyologist. This summer, his team described a new species of Oscar fish in the journal ZooKeys.

In this second part of his interview, he tells us about the challenges in his work and shares the story behind the new cichlid’s name. You can find Part 1 of the interview.

What did you find to be the biggest challenge?

Throughout the past seven years, the description of this species has been a real challenge. Our group of researchers knew from the beginning that it was going to be a difficult job.  However, we never imagined the magnitude of the problems or challenges we would encounter.

We had to study the specimens from the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia, and rivers from the hydrographic basin of the Gulf of Paria in Venezuela, which were within our reach, in the main scientific collections of fishes in Venezuela. Similarly, we studied the specimens from the Amazon River basin in one of the main collections in Brazil. We studied the traditional external morphology (morphometric characters, or the body, and meristic measurements, or the number of structures or parts such as scales, fins, etc.) and their coloration, as well as their internal morphology, that is, the study of structures of their skeleton, with the use of high-definition radiographs, where we found the main differences with other species.

A novel technique was the study of the shape of the otoliths, or “ear stones”, a technique not used before in the study of this group of fish. That is why I mentioned before that we also made some great scientific discoveries.

In addition to the long and meticulous laboratory work, we also had to conduct field work, not only to capture new specimens for the morphological study, but also for the genetic and molecular study, a new methodology that has become popular in recent years as a way to support taxonomy and systematics in the description and classification of species.

For this latest work, we also relied on a recent study in this area of ​​research, carried out by the genetics specialists on our work team. This means our research was based on what is currently called “integrative taxonomy”, which is the sum of different techniques, methods, and technologies, at the service of achieving our goal: the description of a new species for science and for the world.

Many other difficulties came up along the way, which is why this research took over seven years to be published. Normally, researchers cannot focus 100% of their time on one single research, and workloads fluctuate. Sometimes we think that a greater number of specialists would help distribute the workload evenly or that getting input from others with different fields of experience, sometimes specialized, would help enrich the work, but that also makes it more difficult to reach agreement. Reaching perfection is never possible, and it took a long time for us to reach a level of results that was both acceptable to all and well accepted in the field of taxonomy and systematics.

One of the biggest challenges was purely financial. While we had some funds from Brazilian research support organizations and two universities, this was not the case in Venezuela, a country plunged in a serious political, social, economic, and humanitarian crisis.

Working in science in a country under these conditions, and being able to publish your results in high-level scientific journals, including ZooKeys, is an act of “true heroism”, as my brother José Antonio often says when cheering on my publication.

How come you named it after Ivan Mikolji?

People who do not know about the great work carried out by river explorer Ivan Mikolji might wonder about that, but the thousands of people, connoisseurs and followers of his work are absolutely clear on the justification for this appointment.

Find more about Ivan Mikolji and his work on his website: https://mikolji.com/.

In addition to being an excellent professional explorer, author, underwater photographer, audiovisual producer and even plastic artist, he is a tireless and enthusiastic disseminator of the biodiversity and natural history of freshwater fish in Venezuela and Colombia.

His work has contributed greatly to the knowledge and conservation of the aquatic ecosystems of both countries. His motto is: “You cannot preserve something that you don’t know exists.”

He has made dozens of photography and art exhibitions in Venezuela, Mexico and the United States, as well as award-winning documentaries on the Orinoco River and its biodiversity that have acquired millions of views.

Mikolji has also inspired thousands of “conservationist” aquarists, as a judge in a worldwide movement called “Biotope Aquariums,” where people try to simulate, as much as possible, the ecosystems and aquatic biodiversity of their places of origin, for the conservation of their local biodiversity.

In addition, his educational work further includes the “Wild Aquarium”, a new movement and methodology, where he recreates in the same place (in situ), a “Biotope aquarium”, helping local communities (children and adults) learn about local aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity and their conservation.

In addition to his great artistic, informative, and educational work, with the enormous data accumulated in more than 15 years of work and field observations, in the recent years, he has participated in different research projects, publishing books and numerous scientific articles, some of them with us. For this reason, in 2020, he was appointed Associate Researcher of the Museo de Historia Natural La Salle (Caracas) of the Fundación La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, in Venezuela. By the way, we are planning research that we hope to announce soon in various publications.

Regarding Astronotus mikoljii, our good friend and now colleague Ivan Mikolji, was the one who initially proposed that we describe this species that he loves so much. He selflessly supported all the authors throughout the study in diverse ways, even in the field work in Venezuela. Ivan helped us in the search for equipment and materials, in the search for information, in the photographic work, and now in the dissemination of this study. For this reason, the article, in just one week, achieved more than 4,500 downloads, both on ZooKeys and ResearchGate web platforms, a true record for a study of this type.

Most importantly, throughout these years, Ivan has always encouraged us not to lose our course and objective, even in the most difficult moments. After years of knowing him, we have cultivated an excellent friendship. This is why we decided that it was just and necessary to recognize his work, help, companionship, and friendship, naming this beautiful and beloved species in his honor.

Photos by Ivan Mikolji.

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You can find Part 1 and continue reading with Part 3.

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“Oscar describes Oscar”: Interview with Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, Pt 1

“As an ichthyologist, I feel pride in collaborating and contributing to science, nationally, regionally, and globally.”

Oscar Miguel Lasso-Alcalá, MSc., is a Spanish-Venezuelan ichthyologist with undergraduate studies in Oceanography, Fishing Technology and Aquaculture, and Postgraduate studies in Agricultural Zoology and Estuary Ecology. He has worked in diverse areas such as taxonomy, biology, ecology, freshwater, estuarine, and marine fisheries and management. For 33 years, he has participated in more than 70 research projects and published over 250 studies. He has made more than 250 scientific expeditions to different regions of Venezuela and six other countries in America. He has dedicated much of his work to studying, educating, and managing introduced species and their invasions.

This summer, Oscar’s team described a new species of cichlid fish from northern South America in our journal ZooKeys. We spoke to him to find out how they came to the discovery and what it means to him.

When did you discover the new species?

Although some taxonomists have specimens that they believe, or have preliminarily diagnosed, to correspond to different, undescribed or new-to-science species (in my case I know of around 15 species I’ve diagnosed as new), Astronotus mikoljii was different. We did not discover that it was a new species overnight.

Normally, the process of discovering a new species takes a long time and a lot of work. It is not an easy task. First, you need to analyze the external and internal morphology. You study the color pattern and other characteristics and compare them to those of known, described species that are akin or similar to the one being studied, looking for the main differences. It is also very important to carry out exhaustive documentary and bibliographical research, to learn about all related species that have been previously described. Then, if there is complete certainty that it’s a different species that has not been previously described and published, there’s an entire process of formal description of the new species.

Did you immediately recognize it as a new species?

Absolutely not. Mikolji’s Oscar is difficult to differentiate externally. The first researcher who evidenced the main differences of Astronotus ocellatus (a binomial as it was previously known) from the Orinoco River basin, was the Swedish ichthyologist Sven Oscar Kullander, curator at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. He is one of the greatest specialists in the world on species of the Cichlidae family, to which the species we were studying belongs. This was first published in 1981, followed by his 1983, 1986, and 1989 studies (including his Ph.D. thesis) and later in other studies of his published in 2003 (all cited in our recent article published in the ZooKeys journal).

Likewise, my brother, the Spanish and Venezuelan ichthyologist Carlos Andrés Lasso, currently a researcher at the Instituto de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt of Colombia, with more than 40 years of experience, also recognized this species from the Orinoco River as different from the one present in the Amazon River basin. In 18 different studies carried out in Venezuela and Colombia (all cited in our article), he records this species as Astronotus cf ocellatus (“cf” means the species name is yet to be confirmed), or directly as Astronotus sp., already assuring that it was a different species and new to science.

We are letting the world know a defined and individual species exists.

With this background, we responsibly acknowledge that it was Sven and Carlos who discovered Mikolji’s Oscar, and not us. Our credit and recognition are given for the process of describing the new species and for its publication. It is very important to clarify here that the discovery of a new-to-science species and its description (and publication) are two different facts, situations, and processes. However, in our study, we discovered some very important morphological characteristics, as well as genetic information, that allowed the differentiation of this species from those already known.

What was most exciting about this finding?

 As an ichthyologist, I feel pride in collaborating and contributing to science, nationally, regionally, and globally. I feel satisfaction every time I share my research results at a scientific event or meeting (congress, symposium), or publish them in a scientific book (or part of it) or in a popular journal. This is not just an ordinary job for me, since I really like to investigate, and almost always have a lot of fun with this activity. As I have said in many of the interviews that I have had throughout my over 30-year career: to me, it’s not a job, it’s a way of living.

It fills me with great satisfaction to have the opportunity, more than 40 years after first meeting these Oscars, to be able to study them, describe them, and give them the name and place they deserve in science, and in the world.

The description of a species which is new to science is something really special, not only for me and my colleagues in this study, but for the vast majority of taxonomists. This is not only due to the fact that our last names will always appear next to the scientific name, but also to the fact that we are letting the world know a defined and individual species exists. By adding another species, we increase the known biodiversity of a country, a region, and the world, and therefore, we demonstrate that biodiversity must be studied, managed, conserved, and used rationally and independently.

Astronotus mikoljii is a very charismatic species, highly appreciated, valued, and loved in the aquarium hobby.

I remember that as a kid (between 7 and 13 years old), in the aquariums built at home by two of my older brothers, José Antonio and Carlos, to whom I largely owe being an ichthyologist today, we had some specimens of Oscars from Orinoco. We bought them in a local aquarium store in Caracas and took care of them, loved them like little children. I remember that in addition to feeling happily identified with the name (Oscar), they felt like real pets. They “got excited” when they saw us, took food directly from our hands without biting our fingers, and even let themselves be caressed, as if they were docile puppies or kittens. They were my favorite fish.

Years later, as an adult, beginning my research years, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, even with aquariums in our house (I had more than 20 in my good time as an aquarist), we had new specimens of these Oscars. This time, they were specimens captured by my brother and me, in the floodplains of the Orinoco River (Llanos de Apure), where for more than five years we studied the biology and ecology of some 200 local fish species, many of them unique in the world just like Mikolji’s Oscar. From that field study came the doctoral thesis of my brother Carlos, and the undergraduate theses of half a dozen other researchers, including mine.

It fills me with great satisfaction to have the opportunity, more than 40 years after first meeting these Oscars, to be able to study them, describe them, and give them the name and place they deserve in science, and in the world. It also fills me with deep satisfaction, having the opportunity to describe a “large-sized” species that was apparently already known, both locally and nationally (for its importance in fishing), as well as internationally in the world of aquarism. That is why, as I shared our study and finding on social media, I wrote: “Oscar describes the Oscar: Mikolji’s Oscar.

We are also extremely grateful to the many people who helped us and collaborated with us in this study, by collecting new specimens in the field, reviewing fish collections under their care, taking X-rays, searching for specialized bibliographies, studying the native or indigenous names, and even editing and publishing the article in Zookeys journal.

Likewise, it was exciting to share this research experience with colleagues from Brazil (co-authors of this study, just like me), who trusted us and our meticulous work.

Photos by Ivan Mikolji

The story continues with Part 2 and Part 3.

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Top new species discoveries for the first half of 2022

The diversity is impressive, but what is even more amazing is how much more remains undiscovered.

In the world of biodiversity science, 2022 started with some great discoveries and a lot of hope. Here at Pensoft, we get to see a new species (or more!) make an appearance into the scientific world almost every day. The diversity is impressive, but what is even more amazing is how much more remains undiscovered.

With the first half of the year already behind us, here are the stellar new species that took the world by storm as soon as we published them.

The magical fairy wrasse

This rainbow-coloured fish is called Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa, or Rose-Veiled Fairy Wrasse, and it was found in the Maldives’ reefs. It can live 160 to 500 feet beneath the ocean’s surface in unexplored coral ecosystems dubbed “the twilight zone”. 

It was discovered within California Academy of SciencesHope for Reefs initiative, which is aimed at better understanding and protecting coral reefs around the world.

“Nobody knows these waters better than the Maldivian people,” says senior author and Academy Curator of Ichthyology Luiz Rocha. “Our research is stronger when it’s done in collaboration with local researchers and divers.”

Apart from its striking appearance, Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa also gained popularity as the first new-to-science species to be described by a Maldivian scientist.

“It has always been foreign scientists who have described species found in the Maldives, even those that are endemic, without much involvement from local scientists, says study co-author and Maldives Marine Research Institute biologist Ahmed Najeeb. “This time it is different.”

It is also one of the first species to have its name derived from the local Dhivehi language, ‘finifenmaa’ meaning ‘rose’, a nod to both its pink hues and the island nation’s national flower.

This beautiful fish is already being exploited through the aquarium hobbyist trade, a fact described as “unsettling” by the people who discovered it.

Published in ZooKeys.

The Taylor Swift millipede

How often is it that a millipede makes top news headlines? Well, Nannaria swiftae sure did.

Scientists Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek, at Virginia Tech, U.S., described the new species in April, naming it after singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. “Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks,” Derek Hennen says, admitting he has been her fan for years.

N. swiftae joins 16 other new species of twisted-claw millipedes described from the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. To find them, researchers traveled to 17 US states, checking under leaf litter, rocks, and logs. They then sequenced the DNA of the species they found and described them scientifically. They looked at over 1800 specimens collected on their field study or taken from university and museum collections!

These little-known invertebrates are somewhat tricky to catch, because they tend to remain buried in the soil, sometimes staying completely beneath the surface.

Most twisted-claw millipedes live on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying leaves and other plant matter. They also have a valuable role as decomposers: breaking down leaf litter, they release their nutrients into the ecosystem.

Published in ZooKeys.

The Greta Thunberg frog

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has been namesakes with a frog for half a year now. In 2018, Rainforest Trust celebrated its 30th anniversary by hosting an auction offering naming rights for some new-to-science species, including Pristimantis gretathunbergae, a black-eyed rainfrog from in eastern Panama.

The undisclosed auction winner wanted to name the frog in honor of Thunberg and her work in highlighting the urgency in preventing climate change. She has impressed global leaders and her work is drawing others to action for the climate.

The international team that discovered the new rainfrog was led by Abel Batista, Ph.D. (Panama) and Konrad Mebert, Ph.D. (Switzerland). They found the frog on Mount Chucanti, a sky island surrounded by lowland tropical rainforest in eastern Panama. Reaching its habitat in the cloud forest required access via horseback through muddy trails, hiking up steep slopes, by-passing two helicopters that crashed decades ago, and camping above 1000 m elevation.

Unfortunately, the frog’s remaining habitat is severely fragmented and highly threatened by rapid deforestation for plantations and cattle pasture. Rising temperatures are another threat as they could destroy its small mountain habitat. The Mount Chucanti region already has lost more than 30% of its forest cover over the past 10 years, and the scientists insist that conservation of the remaining habitat is critical to ensure the survival of the frog.

Published in ZooKeys.

The chocolate frog

Since we’re on the subject of frogs, how about one that almost looks like it’s not real?

Instantly gaining popularity as Chocolate Frog, Synapturanus danta is a curious little frog that was recently discovered in the Peruvian Amazon. Local people had long known about this tiny, burrowing frog with a long snout; one local name for it is rana danta, “tapir frog”, for its resemblance to the large-nosed Amazonian mammal.

“These frogs are really hard to find, and that leads to them being understudied,” says Michelle Thompson, a researcher in the Keller Science Action Center at Chicago’s Field Museum and one of the authors of the study describing the frog. “It’s an example of the Amazon’s hidden diversity, and it’s important to document it to understand how important the ecosystem functions.”

While the frogs are hard to see, they’re not hard to hear. “We just kept hearing this beep-beep-beep coming from underground, and we suspected it could be a new species of burrowing frog,” says Thompson. “But how do we get to it?”

Local guides who were familiar with the frogs led the researchers to peatland areas– wetlands carpeted with nutrient-rich turf made of decaying plant matter. “After 15 to 20 minutes of digging and looking for them, I heard Michelle screaming, and to me that could only mean that she and David had found the first adult,” says Germán Chávez, a researcher at Peru’s Instituto Peruano de Herpetología and the study’s first author.

The researchers used the physical specimens of the frogs, along with the recordings of their calls and an analysis of the frogs’ DNA, to confirm that they were a new species. They named them Synapturanus danta – Synapturanus is the name of the genus they belong to, and danta is the local word for “tapir.”

Published in Evolutionary Systematics.

The fabulous flaming-red snake

This magnificent non-venomous snake, previously unknown to science, was discovered in Paraguay. It belongs to the genus Phalotris, a group of snakes from central South America noted for their striking coloration with red, black, and yellow patterns.

Jean-Paul Brouard, one of the involved researchers, came across an individual of the new species by chance while digging a hole at Rancho Laguna Blanca in 2014. Together with his colleagues Paul Smith and Pier Cacciali, he described the discovery, naming the new snake Phalotris shawnella.

The species name recognizes two children – Shawn Ariel Smith Fernández and Ella Bethany Atkinson – who were born in the same year as the Fundación Para La Tierra (2008). They inspired the founders of the NGO to work for the conservation of Paraguayan wildlife, in the hope that their children can inherit a better world.

This new Phalotris snake is particularly attractive and can be distinguished from other related species in its genus by its red head in combination with a yellow collar, a black lateral band and orange ventral scales with irregular black spots.

Only known from three individuals, this species is endemic to the Cerrado forests of the department of San Pedro in east Paraguay. Its extreme rarity led the authors to consider it as “Endangered”, according to the conservation categories of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means it is in imminent danger of extinction in the absence of measures for its protection.

Published in Zoosystematics and Evolution.

Underground carnivore: the first species of pitcher plant to dine on subterranean prey

This is the first pitcher plant known to produce functional underground traps, and the first for which capture of subterranean prey has been observed.

What we thought we knew about carnivorous plants was swiftly called into question after scientists discovered a new species in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. Nepenthes pudica is what scientists call a pitcher plant – it has modified leaves known as pitfall traps or pitchers, where it captures its prey. In a strategy so far unknown from any other species of carnivorous plant with pitfall traps, this one operates underground, catching its prey in the soil.

Habitat with a mature plant of Nepenthes pudica lacking pitchers on the aboveground shoot. Photo by Martin Dančák

“We found a pitcher plant which differs markedly from all the other known species,”

says Martin Dančák of Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, lead author of the study, published in the journal PhytoKeys, where his team described the new species.

“In fact, this species places its up-to-11-cm-long pitchers underground, where they are formed in cavities or directly in the soil and trap animals living underground, usually ants, mites and beetles”, he adds.

A completely buried shoot with a bunch of well-developed pitchers uncovered from beneath a moss cushion. Photo by Martin Dančák

Only three other groups of carnivorous plants are known to trap underground prey, but they all use very different trapping mechanisms and, unlike Nepenthes pudica, can catch only minuscule organisms.

The plant forms specialised underground shoots with entirely white, chlorophyll-free leaves. In addition to lacking their normal green pigmentation, the leaves supporting the pitchers are reduced to a fraction of their normal size. The pitchers, however, retain their size and often also their reddish colour.

If no cavity is available, the shoots grow directly into the soil, as seen here where a bunch of pitchers was excavated from the ground. Photo by Martin Dančák

“Interestingly, we found numerous organisms living inside the pitchers, including mosquito larvae, nematodes and a species of worm which was also described as a new species”,

explains Václav Čermák of the Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic, who was also part of the research team.

The newly discovered species grows on relatively dry ridge tops at an elevation of 1100–1300 m. According to its discoverers, this might be why it evolved to move its traps underground. “We hypothesise that underground cavities have more stable environmental conditions, including humidity, and there is presumably also more potential prey during dry periods,” adds Michal Golos of the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, who also worked on this curious plant.

A shoot with reduced white leaves and well-developed pitchers extracted from a cavity under a tree. Photo by Martin Dančák

A series of lucky events back in 2012 led to the discovery of the species. Ľuboš Majeský of Palacký University Olomouc, part of the research team, recounts the key moment: “During a several-day trip with our Indonesian colleagues to a previously unexplored mountain, randomly chosen from a number of candidates, we noted plants which were undoubtedly Nepenthes but produced no pitchers. After a careful search, we found a couple of aerial pitchers, a few juvenile terrestrial ones, and one deformed pitcher protruding from the soil.”

“At first, we thought it was an accidentally buried pitcher and that local environmental conditions had caused the lack of other pitchers. Still, as we continued to find other pitcherless plants along the ascent to the summit, we wondered if a species of pitcher plant might have evolved towards loss of carnivory, as seen in some other carnivorous plants. But then, when taking photos, I tore a moss cushion from a tree base revealing a bunch of richly maroon-coloured pitchers growing from a short shoot with reduced leaves entirely lacking chlorophyll.”

The group then checked the other encountered plants and found that all of them had underground shoots with pitchers, confirming that this species specifically targets the underground environment.

The scientific name Nepenthes pudica points to the plant’s curious behaviour: it is derived from the Latin adjective pudicus, which means bashful and reflects the fact that its lower pitchers remain hidden from sight.

Nepenthes pudica is endemic to Borneo.

“This discovery is important for nature conservation in Indonesian Borneo, as it emphasises its significance as a world biodiversity hotspot. We hope that the discovery of this unique carnivorous plant might help protect Bornean rainforests, especially prevent or at least slow the conversion of pristine forests into oil palm plantations,”

concludes Wewin Tjiasmanto of Yayasan Konservasi Biota Lahan Basah, who helped discover the new species.

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Research article

Dančák M, Majeský Ľ, Čermák V, Golos MR, Płachno BJ, Tjiasmanto W (2022) First record of functional underground traps in a pitcher plant: Nepenthes pudica (Nepenthaceae), a new species from North Kalimantan, Borneo. PhytoKeys 201: 77-97. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.201.82872

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India’s relic forests reveal a new species of leopard gecko

The Painted Leopard Gecko is already under a threat of extinction, as it is being collected for the pet trade and may even be smuggled illegally.

Deep in the forests of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in India lives a colourful gecko species that only now revealed its true identity. Meet Eublepharis pictus, also known as the Painted Leopard Gecko.

In 2017, researchers Zeeshan A. Mirza of the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore and C. Gnaneswar of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust in Chennai found a gecko in a water tank near a temple in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, during a field survey. Back then, they identified it as belonging to the East Indian Leopard Gecko species (Eublepharis hardwickii).

Painted leopard gecko ( Eublepharis pictus). Image by Sanjay Kumar & Avinash Ch.

“The species appears to be common in the hill forests, but its distinctness was only confirmed by other researchers,” Zeeshan Mirza explains.

In a phylogenetic study, where they looked for the evolutionary history and relationships within and between the leopard gecko species in the genus Eublepharis, the researchers found that what had until then been considered a southern population of East Indian Leopard Geckomight be distinct enough to represent a new species.

Once they had molecular data they could work with, the team made morphological comparisons between the species, looking at specimens across natural history museums.

Map of east India showing the distribution of E. hardwickii (black circles) and E. pictus (blue rhombus). Image of E. pictus by Gnaneshwar C. H.

“These lizards have conserved morphologies and most species are quite similar in general appearance,” Zeeshan Mirza elaborates. “With a few characters based on the number of specimens examined, we described the species and named it the Painted Leopard Gecko – in Latin, Eublepharis pictus, for its colouration.” They published their discovery in the open-access scientific journal Evolutionary Systematics.

With this new addition, the gecko genus Eublepharis now contains 7 species. Two of them – E. pictus and E. satpuraensis – were described by Zeeshan Mirza.

The Painted Leopard Gecko measures 11.7 cm in length, which is somewhat large for a leopard gecko. The Brahmani River, which runs through the Eastern Ghats, separates it geographically from the East Indian Leopard Gecko, with which it shares a lot of similar traits.

The new species lives in dry evergreen forests mixed with scrub and meadows. It is strictly nocturnal, actively foraging along trails in the forest after dusk. While looking for food, it has been observed licking surfaces as it moves, which suggests it might use its tongue as a sensory organ.

Even though the Painted Leopard Gecko seems to be widespread across the state of Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh, the researchers worry about its conservation. “The species is collected for the pet trade and even now may be smuggled illegally,” they write in their paper, which is why they refrain from giving out the exact locations where it may be found.

Painted leopard gecko ( Eublepharis pictus). Photo by Zeeshan Mirza

The authors believe the species would stand more of a chance against humans if more people knew it was actually harmless. To protect it, they suggest listing it as Near Threatened based on IUCN conservation prioritisation criteria, until more is known about the size of its populations.

Further research may also encourage better protection of biodiversity in the area. “The Eastern Ghats are severely under-surveyed, and dedicated efforts will help recognize it as a biodiversity hotspot,” the authors conclude.

Research article:

Mirza ZA, Gnaneswar C (2022) Description of a new species of leopard geckos, Eublepharis Gray, 1827 from Eastern Ghats, India with notes on Eublepharis hardwickii Gray, 1827. Evolutionary Systematics 6(1): 77-88. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.6.83290

Festschrift for Dr Jason Londt at African Invertebrates invites submissions

African Invertebrates invites any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens he collected.

From 1976 to 1994, Jason Londt was Assistant Director at the Natal Museum (now KwaZulu-Natal Museum) in South Africa, publisher of the African Invertebrates journal. Then, he became Director before retiring in 2003.

During his career at the Museum and well after that, Jason described more than 570 species and 46 genera of insects from the Afrotropics. While the majority of his work was on the robber fly family (Asilidae), Jason also worked on hangingflies (Bittacidae) and ticks. He was also a prolific collector of many other insects, still kept in the collection of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum. 

Dr Jason Gilbert Hayden Londt

Jason’s fieldwork was extensively targeting the diverse habitats in South Africa: from the subtropical coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the grasslands in the Midlands around Pietermaritzburg – where the museum is based – and further north in the Highveld, to the higher elevations of the Drakensberg Mountains bordering Lesotho, and from the Succulent and Nama Karoo, to the diverse Fynbos habitats along the south-western coast of South Africa. Additional major fieldwork took place in Namibia, Kenya, Malawi, and to a lesser extent: Eswatini (Swaziland) and Cote d’Ivoire. In addition to utilising the collected material for taxonomic work, Jason also used his field trips to publish behavioural observations and prey selection of Asilidae species.

To celebrate Jason’s career achievements and his 80th birthday, African Invertebrates will be publishing a Festschrift in his honour in April 2023. We invite any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens collected by Jason.

This issue will be edited by Dr Torsten Dikow (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, USA), Dr Kirstin Williams (KwaZulu-Natal Museum) and Dr John Midgley (KwaZulu-Natal Museum). 

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Submission deadline: 31 December 2022

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Find more about the upcoming Festschrift on the African Invertebrates’ journal website. 

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Taylor Swift, the millipede: Scientists name a new species after the singer

Scientists described a total of 17 new species from the Appalachian Mountains—now published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

Taylor Swift, U.S. singer-songwriter known for hits such as “Shake It Off” and “You Belong With Me”, has earned a new accolade—she now has a new species of millipede named in her honor.

Taylor Swift. Photo by Eva Rinaldi

The twisted-claw millipede Nannaria swiftae joins 16 other new species described from the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. These little-known invertebrates have a valuable role as decomposers: breaking down leaf litter, they release their nutrients into the ecosystem. They live on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying leaves and other plant matter, and in fact, they are somewhat tricky to catch, because they tend to remain buried in the soil, sometimes staying completely beneath the surface.

Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks.

Derek Hennen

Scientists Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek, at Virginia Tech, U.S., describe the new species in a research paper published in the open access journal ZooKeys. The research was funded by a National Science Foundation Advancing Revisionary Taxonomy and Systematics grant (DEB# 1655635).

The newly described twisted-claw millipede, Nannaria swiftae. Photo by Dr Derek Hennen

Because of their presence in museum collections, scientists long suspected that the twisted-claw millipedes included many new species, but these specimens went undescribed for decades. To fix this, the researchers began a multi-year project to collect new specimens throughout the eastern U.S. They traveled to 17 US states, checking under leaf litter, rocks, and logs to find species so that they could sequence their DNA and scientifically describe them.

Example of typical habitat for twisted-claw millipedes. Photo by Dr Derek Hennen

Looking at over 1800 specimens collected on their field study or taken from university and museum collections, the authors described 17 new species, including Nannaria marianae, which was named after Hennen’s wife. They discovered that the millipedes prefer to live in forested habitats near streams and are often found buried under the soil, exhibiting more cryptic behaviors than relatives.

The newly-described millipedes range between 18 and 38 mm long, have shiny caramel-brown to black bodies with white, red, or orange spots, and have white legs. The males have small, twisted and flattened claws on their anterior legs, which is the basis for their common name.

The lead author of the study, Derek Hennen, is a fan of Taylor Swift. 

“Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks,” he says.

Research article:

Hennen DA, Means JC, Marek PE (2022) A revision of the wilsoni species group in the millipede genus Nannaria Chamberlin, 1918 (Diplopoda, Polydesmida, Xystodesmidae). ZooKeys 1096: 17-118. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1096.73485

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New, possibly arboreal rice rat species discovered in Ecuador

Three expeditions led an international research team to the nearly inaccessible Cordillera de Kutukú in southeastern Ecuador to find just a single specimen of the previously unknown species

New rat species of the little known and rare genus Mindomys described: Three expeditions led an international research team with participation from the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change (LIB) to the Cordillera de Kutukú, an isolated mountain range in Ecuador, to find just one specimen of the previously unknown species. The find in the Amazonian side of the Andes underlines the valuable biological role of this mountainous region.

Drawing of the new species Mindomys kutuku. © Glenda Pozo

“In total, the expeditions to the Kutukú region in southeastern Ecuador involved 1,200 trap nights, but only one specimen of the new species Mindomys kutuku was found,” says Dr. Claudia Koch, curator of herpetology at the LIB, Museum Koenig Bonn, explaining the effort that went into locating the rare animal. From the collected specimen, the dry skin, skeleton and tissue were preserved for the collections. Preservation will allow future research to detect environmental changes, learn more about the ecology of the animals and plants – and securely document the new species description, which was published in late February in the prestigious journal Evolutionary Systematics.

The rice rat genus Mindomys was previously considered monotypic and included only the type species Mindomys hammondi. This species is known from only a few specimens, all of which were collected in the foothill forests of the Andes in northwestern Ecuador.

Using computed tomography images obtained for the new species at LIB and for the holotype (specimen from which a species was described) of M. hammondi at the Natural History Museum in London, the researchers Jorge Brito of the Instituto Nacional de la Biodiversidad (INABIO), Claudia Koch, Nicolás Tinoco from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) and Ulyses Pardiñas from the Instituto de Diversidad y Evolución del Sur (IDEAus-CONICET) were able to compare the skulls of the two species in great detail in a 3D model and distinguish between the two species.

According to Jorge Brito, INABIO’s mammal curator, the new species is easily distinguished from Mindomys hammondi by a number of anatomical features: “These include larger jugals, “wings” of the parietal bone extending to the zygomatic roots, larger otic capsules, narrow zygomatic plates almost without upper free borders, a posteriorly oriented foramen magnum (large occipital hole), larger molars and an accessory root of the first upper molar.”

The adult male of M. kutuku measures just under 35 cm from snout to tip of tail, of which the tail makes up about 20 cm. It has a dark reddish-brown dorsal coloration and a pale yellow ventral fur.

Since the only specimen found was captured with the help of a ground trap set, it could not be observed in its habitat. Thus, as with its sister species M. hammondi, which was described in 1913, virtually nothing is known about the natural history of the new species. The scientists suspect that both of them could be arboreal species. A tail that is significantly longer than the body length and also covered with long hairs could be two features that indicate an arboreal lifestyle. However, aboreality is the least studied way of life within the New World mice and a reliable study of the anatomical aspects typical of this way of life is still lacking.

Previously, Mindomys records were restricted to the western Andean foothills of Ecuador. The Kutukú material now shows that the genus also occurs on the Amazonian side of the Andes and underscores the valuable biological importance of the isolated mountain ranges in eastern Ecuador.

Research article:

Brito J, Koch C, Tinoco N, Pardiñas UFJ (2022) A new species of Mindomys (Rodentia, Cricetidae) with remarks on external traits as indicators of arboreality in sigmodontine rodents. Evolutionary Systematics 6(1): 35-55. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.6.76879

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