Let Them Hear: Earless Monitor’s Fate Exposes Illegal Animal Trafficking

A recent article has illuminated a potentially devastating turn among zoos: the recent rise in the illegal trade of rare and endangered animals, with little to no consequence to those responsible.

The species at the heart of this story is a strange and wonderful creature: the earless monitor lizard. Found only in Borneo--which includes Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia-- this odd-looking creature (some call it a “miniature Godzilla”) was known via preserved specimens alone for many decades, and was only very recently discovered still very much alive. It is consequently a species with protected status that cannot be legally exported out of its native territories.

But, of course, it was exported, especially  within the past ten years. And the monitor, the "holy grail of herpetology," has unwittingly become the centerpiece of contention regarding illegal trade in wildlife within established zoological facilities.

What has been exposed by these mysterious creatures is the use of myriad loopholes to laws barring  their acquisition. The zoos involved reported acquiring the monitors from private individuals, from third parties like the non-accredited iZoo in Japan, and from hobby breeders. Yet no permits for these animals were ever obtained.

Trade in endangered animals in zoos is nothing new; the practice sadly used to be a commonplace occurrence throughout the world. It is only relatively recently that ethical measures and laws have been put in place to stop acquisitions that imperil animals already threatened by poaching, habitat loss, and climate change. But they are imperfect tools at best.

We can, however, do our small part to put an end to this detrimental activity. Increased scrutiny of these shady acquisitions, as well as public awareness of the threat posed to already-endangered creatures, will put pressure on those involved in illegal trafficking. Let’s get the word out!

All Hail the Swamp King!

The King (no, not THAT King) is sadly not around anymore. But a massive crocodile (sixteen feet long!) once roamed the prehistoric wetlands of Australia, devouring whatever toothsome marsupials fell into his path.

The so-called “Swamp King,” Paludirex vincenti (named after researcher Geoff Vincenti, who found a skull of the massive creature), has taken its time to be recognized. Biologists in Australia uncovered the fossils in the 1980s in Chinchilla, Queensland. The creature lived between 5 and 2.5 million years ago, so adding 40-some years to its discovery as a separate species really isn’t much, when you think about it.

Two species of crocodile still exist in Australia, and researchers do not know why the Swamp King died out. But with its broad head and enormous size, it would have truly been a mighty ruler!

A Breath of (Semi-)Fresh Air: Scientists Find Anoles That Breathe Underwater

Leave it to the lizards. Not only do some of them “walk” on water (the “Jesus Christ” lizard, or basilisk, has that amazing capability)—but others can take air down with them when they dive underneath the surface of water!

It seems that some anoles will dip into the water to escape predators, sometimes hanging out down below for as long as 18 minutes. This behavior from air-breathing (i.e. non-amphibious) lizards has for some time been a head-scratcher for biologists. An in-depth examination of the submerged anoles by dedicated researchers, however, soon produced this fascinating clue: they form air bubbles on their snouts while underwater. It is surmised that these lizards are then able to use the air pocket to “rebreathe” the air, not unlike the way a human scuba diver would. Some river bugs and spiders also show this ability. But in larger animals with greater metabolic rates such as lizards, this behavior was a surprise to researchers. However, when they measured the oxygen levels in the air bubbles, they noticed it dropped as time went on. The anoles really seem to be using these pockets to breathe underwater.

The article goes on to posit how the anoles (usually identified by their vibrant-colored dewlaps) might be able to accomplish this feat below the waves. And it includes short videos of the lizards using their own personal scuba equipment!

Waiting Game: Zoo Keeps Rescued Reptiles (and Progeny) Until Habitat Is Restored

The bad news? Last year, a terrible shipping fuel spill contaminated the habitat of several critically endangered reptiles on the island of Mauritius, including two species of skinks and the lesser night gecko.

The good news? Folks at the Jersey Zoo (no, not that Jersey; it’s the island of Jersey in the English Channel, which has a great, conservation-minded zoo) have brought those reptiles that were able to be rescued into breeding programs there, with an eye toward eventual restoration to their habitat.

The fuel spill accident occurred during the height of Covid (August 2020) and forced gas-mask-clad rescuers on the island (located off Madagascar) to scoop up quickly whatever creatures they could find, as the fuel spill was toxic to them as well. The two varieties of skinks (Bojer’s skink and Bouton’s skink) and the gecko species are breeding well, in a genetic conservation program known as an “ark”. But the creatures may have to wait a while until they can get back to their ancestral home (and into their ecologically important niche): the oil has quite possibly contaminated the area for decades. More details of this harrowing but heartening rescue story can be found here.

We hope these beautiful, winsome creatures are soon and successfully restored to their home territory. And we give kudos to the hardworking conservationists involved in their rescue!