It’s Always Something (New)! Recent Discoveries in Herpetofauna

In 2023, scientists and researchers recorded many fascinating creatures to add to our knowledge about life here on the planet. Among the nearly 1,000 new species discovered by the research team of the London Natural History Museum and the California Academy of Sciences were, not surprisingly, a number of reptiles and amphibians. But what a lineup!

The herpetological riches include the so-called "groins of fire" tree frog found in Peru, a nonvenomous snake also from Peru named after actor Harrison Ford (it's not his fault), a snail-eating snake from Ecuador named BY actor Leonardo di Caprio to honor his mother (aww), a croakless amphibian--the spiny throated tree frog from Tanzania--who may mate by touch (!), the lesser thorn-tailed gecko, found in western Australia, that can shoot…goo out of its tail, and a new species of legless skink found in the high mountains of Angola.

The articles reporting these revelations discuss only some of the complexities of these new discoveries from both plant and animal kingdoms. Some species were truly unknown. Others are rediscoveries of species thought extinct but which are in fact still hanging on for dear life. Other discoveries involve species which ARE extinct but because of their fossil traces, we now know about them. (Which is something, at least). Included in the discoveries are the Sierra Nevada red fox, thought extinct since 1930 (wrong!), several species of long-extinct bats, a monstrously large spider, a lightbulb anemone, a blind subterranean catfish, an oddly-snouted furry hedgehog (yes, you read that right), and a giant penguin--also sadly (but not surprisingly) extinct.

The announcement came in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act in the United States. It also highlighted the importance of the act in the face of ongoing species devastation due to pollution, habitat loss, climate change, and deforestation.

Let us hope that 2024 brings other discoveries of all kinds of plant and animal life. And may it also bring humankind's renewed commitment to respect and protect the diverse living creatures that share the planet with us!

Just When You Thought Sex Was Complicated Enough…

… here come the whiptails!

Actually, whiptail lizards have been around for quite a while. And scientists have for some time been aware of—and fascinated by--the unique gender qualities of these lizards, a species that is not sexual but unisexual. Who wouldn't be intrigued by lizards that are, essentially, all female—but which can still produce offspring with genetic variations (i.e. that are NOT clones)?

But it turns out the uniqueness of these winsome creatures points to an even more interesting theory concerning the evolution of a species. According to an article in Discover magazine, this particular species of lizard came up for study during research on how hybridization leads to different outcomes in their evolution. In evolutionary terms, hybridization sometimes produce genetic differences, and in other cases, it leads to entirely different species.

In this study of whiptails, the research seems to indicate that "genetic distance between parental genomes can predict hybrid outcomes and the likelihood of forming a new species due to hybridization." Specifically, it suggests that the divergence period between species needed for hybridization to result in unisexual lizards had to exceed at least ten million years. The study thus seems to conclude that, well, some things about sex are predictable, at least in whiptail lizards. It just takes a long time....

OK, who had "evolutionary outcomes" on their bingo card?

Snake on a … Well, You Know!

Some headlines just write themselves.

In an instance of (fictional) déjà vu, last fall, a United Airlines flight from Tampa to Newark had an unexpected—and sad to say, unwelcome—stowaway on board. It was, of course, of the ophidian variety—specifically, a common garter snake, both harmless and diminutive. The hapless creature, which had somehow strayed onto the aircraft, was discovered late in the flight, as the plane was taxiing into the destination airport. Seems it disrupted the passengers--who were "shrieking" and pulling up their feet--but limited its walkabout to business class. (Evidently, the snake either had business to do, or simply didn't wish to travel in coach. Who can blame it?)

The plane was able to land normally, and the snake was removed, though no details were forthcoming on what became of it. Let's just hope it was someone able to guide it to a rescue or shelter.


Or maybe make it the latest Hollywood star?  😉

Up Close and Personal: A Gecko’s Journey

This news item is a couple of years old, but still worthy of note. A British woman on holiday in Barbados returned to her Yorkshire home only to discover a tiny reptilian stowaway in, of all places, her bra!

A small (possibly juvenile) desert gecko made the journey of 4,000 miles (there's a song in there somewhere, right?) in the woman's brassiere, inside her luggage. This turned out to be a safe, soft, and comfy spot in her otherwise cramped suitcase—which she admitted she had to sit on to get closed. A very tight spot indeed.

Once the woman discovered that the centimeters-long uninvited guest—which she later dubbed "Barbie"—was still alive and kicking, she promptly called the RSPCA (the British equivalent of the US organization for animals). They sent out a reptile specialist to take in the foundling. The article, written at the height of the pandemic, went on to note that the minute creature happily did not require a Covid test upon arrival at its very own holiday destination.

Life ProTip: after your travels, do shake out your clothes. One never knows what might be lurking in one's lingerie!

In Memoriam: Mitch the Water Dragon

RARN is very sorry to report that in January (2023) we lost one of our long-time rescues, a very handsome but skittish male water dragon named Mitch. He was over 10 years old.

Mitch came to us as a tiny dragon, no more than a couple of months old. When RARN took him in, we thought Mitch was a girl—so for quite a while he was called Midge. He did not seem to be offended. Later, when it was obvious that he was a male, we found him a new name!

Mitch was a poster-boy rescue animal. He came in with a messed-up tail, an injury treated by a vet who was not experienced in handling exotics. The bandage put on the tail was too tight and the tail had to be amputated by another vet, one who had some background in reptile pets. Because of that, Mitch was not a good candidate for adoption—but he beat the odds! He was adopted by someone who wanted him very badly. But alas, the union was short-lived. He sustained damage to his front jaw from rostral rubbing against glass. This can easily get infected if it is not treated immediately. He came back to RARN and got care, and stayed with us to the end.

Mitch had a big bowl with two gallons of water to swim in, in his enclosure, and really seemed to enjoy contact with water—well, he was a water dragon, after all! Though he was pretty much a homebody, he did get the chance to run around the house in the summer, under supervision, for a little "time out." He lived his best life.

Mitch was always a bit shy and grumpy, and did not like crowds or strangers. They frankly freaked him out. So he never showed up at RARN's pre-pandemic public outreach events. But he was always our beloved RARN water dragon. We adored his little face and incredibly gorgeous green coloring. And we miss him.

Cuddle your creatures a little closer this week, and think a good thought of Mitch.