KU researchers discover new lizard species for sale on Manila’s black market

Kansas University’s resident reptile expert and fellow researchers routinely trudge through rainforests overturning leaves and combing streambeds to find live specimens.

Rafe Brown, curator-in-charge of the herpetology division at the KU Biodiversity Institute displays one of two genetic varieties of water monitor lizards that vary sharply from those common to the areas surrounding Manila where KU researchers made their collection.

Rafe Brown, curator-in-charge of the herpetology division at the KU Biodiversity Institute displays a jar of legless lizards collected from the Philippines during a field trip by KU researchers. Scott Travers, who is pursuing his doctorate degree in herpetology and has helped with field research in the Philippines, is pictured at left.

But that’s not where Rafe Brown and his team first encountered two previously unknown species of water monitor lizard. Instead, their first glimpse of the reptiles was at pet shops in the Philippines — where they say the country’s rampant black-market trade in exotic animals threatens its ecosystem.

Brown is an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, and curator-in-charge of herpetology at the KU Biodiversity Institute.

He and colleagues just published descriptions of their newly discovered lizard species in the journal Zootaxa.

That description is one of clear admiration.

“Both are gorgeous, black-and-white or black-and-yellow-colored animals,” Brown said. “They are dark in general appearance with bright speckling of white or yellow spots arranged in rows and stripes around the body, as if wearing shining necklaces. One gets up to a little over three feet in length, and the other is somewhat larger at about four feet. They’re monitor lizards, so they’re alert, with large eyes, continually flicking long tongues, which they ‘smell’ with, and they’re generally very alert and look quite intelligent.”

The same research effort that yielded the discovery of the new lizards also yielded important information about Manila’s illegal pet and bush meat trade, which Brown and colleagues published an analysis of in the journal Biological Conservation.

Brown has been researching in the Philippines for 25 years, and his lab and storage area in Dyche Hall house hundreds of specimens from flying lizards to frogs to cobras preserved in jars and chests for study.

When teams find a reptile they suspect may be a new species, more steps are needed to prove it, Brown said. Sequencing the animal’s DNA, measuring it, counting its scales, examining its characteristics under a microscope and comparing it to other specimens is all part of the process.

In the Philippines, Brown and his teams have collected species in the wild as well as pet shops.

When they first saw the new water monitor lizards in the pet shops, they thought they were simply a genetic variant instead of a completely new species, Brown said.

But their research process proved otherwise.

It also proved that people selling the lizards were lying about where they came from, a common practice Brown said is threatening these and other species in the country.

The new lizards for sale were being billed as from an island they’re not allowed to be taken from, an illicit but common practice that ups the animal’s exotic factor and thus its price, Brown said.

When Brown and his team tried to match the lizards’ DNA to the species they’d found in the wild, they found no match. So they set about trying to find the pet shop lizards in the wild.

“We sort of did the process backward,” he said. “We knew there was something out there. We didn’t know where it was from.”

Instead of the more exotic origin advertised, Brown found the species living in the wild right around Manila. Even though the lizards were from much closer than billed, he said, the new species appeared threatened, especially since the species wasn’t even officially on the books until now.

“The illegal black market in Manila is very clearly, systematically exploiting a nearby population,” he said. “We’re concerned that over exploiting it could lead to that species becoming extinct.”

Beyond the newly discovered species, Brown said his research revealed that about half the time, the reported origins of reptiles for sale did not match their true origins.

Sometimes animals, like the new lizards, were described as being from more exotic or restricted locales than they really were. Other times, animals obtained illegally were listed as being culled from approved locales.

Either way, it’s a conservation concern, Brown said.

Sometimes origins are falsified, enabling animals to be sold to zoos in ways that appear legal, Brown said. Other times, animals are illicitly exported as exotic pets.

“People do all sorts of crazy things,” he said. “For some reason the exotic reptile trade is just out of control.”

Brown said he hopes his research will help change that, by documenting species and exposing the truth about animals sold on the black market.

It’s also important to continue developing partnerships with the Philippines government and raising awareness of the importance of the issue.

“These types of studies really do a lot to kind of bolster the morale,” he said.