A new species of lizard with a brilliant emerald head is the new jewel of Ecuador.
Alopoglossus viridiceps is the first species of shade lizard found at the Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve, in the Western Andes near Quito.
“It’s amazing to think that there are these unknown species less than an hour’s drive from the capital of Ecuador,” said Omar Torres-Carvajal, a herpetologist at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador and co-discoverer of the new species.
The bright emerald head of A. viridiceps is matched by a dramatic orange belly. These features are most prominent on mature adult males, leading Torres-Carvajal to hypothesize that the colors help the lizards find mates.
Like all shade lizards, A. viridiceps lives and feeds in the leaf litter. Unlike most of them, it has a folded tongue rather than a bumpy one. And it has another distinction too: a pair of large scales on its throat.
Evidence for a New Species
When Torres-Carvajal and undergraduate student Simon Lobos found A. viridiceps last year, they weren’t hunting for new species; they were trying to construct the evolutionary relationship of Alopoglossus lizards in Ecuador. But in the field they noticed something unusual—something that looked a lot like the green-headed, orange-bellied specimens they’d seen in museums, which had been collected from Santa Lucia in the past five years and were far brighter than the other, drabber Alopoglossus lizards they’d studied.
Lobos looked more closely at the DNA from A. viridiceps and compared it with that of other shade lizards. What he found suggested that these bright, oddly scaled animals were an unknown species. Torres-Carvajal and Lobos describe their discovery in the May 21 issue of ZooKeys.
“This is good work by good scientists,” said herpetologist Pete Zani of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. “In order to describe a new species, you need to be able to compare it to a world-class collection of existing species, and they have one of the best. Then they combined this with molecular technology to really show what they had found.”
This species is found only on the western side of the Andes, leading Torres-Carvajal to believe that its evolution is linked to the mountain chain’s. Separated from other shade lizards, A. viridiceps evolved into a separate species.
The Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve is part of the highly biodiverse Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena hotspot. It stretches for more than 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) along the Pacific coast, from Panama to northern Peru. Like all the cloud forests in Ecuador, it is rapidly disappearing—making the identification of new species extra important.
“Conservation,” said Zani, “can’t begin until you know what species are there.”