New Species from the West Indies

Photo by
Father Mark de Silva

Darting through the forest on an island in the Caribbean, a previously unidentified species of lizard forages for ants and termites in rotten wood and leaves.

Thanks to the efforts of two scientists, this tiny, colorfully spotted lizard finally has a name. But its future may not be as bright as its scales.

Bob Henderson, curator at the Milwaukee Public Museum and Robert Powell, biologist at Avila University in Kansas City, MO officially named the new species of lizard, Gonatodes daudini, in the Dec. 2005 issue of the Caribbean Journal of Science (CJS). Unfortunately, this newly discovered lizard might soon be listed as an endangered species.

Measuring less than two inches long, Gonatodes daudini, a gecko apparently active by day, makes its home on Union Island, the southernmost of the St. Vincent Grenadine Islands in the West Indies. Since the lizards' habitat is as far as you can get from Union's hotels and resorts, Henderson said the site has been earmarked as a garbage dump, potentially compromising the habitat and future survival of the lizards.

"Officials in the Forestry Department are very aware of the difficulties and are very interested in habitat preservation," Powell said. "Unfortunately, they may not be able to compete with wealthy corporate interests that stand to profit from development."

The ancestors of Gonatodes daudini probably lived in South America. On Union Island, the lizards live among the thorny plants and deciduous trees that cover the area.

"It's not the lush, jungly vegetation you'd imagine on a West Indian island," Henderson said.

Henderson hopes the species' discovery will protect the dry forest that is the only known home of the lizards. The CJS article described the lizard species as being in "imminent danger of extinction in the wild."

"This might provide fuel for not turning the area into a dump," Henderson said. It's up to the local government to protect the area from further development, which, Henderson said, "would seriously threaten the existence of the lizard."

In May 2005, the Rev. Mark de Silva, an amateur naturalist on the island, contacted Henderson and Powell about this possible new species of spotted lizard. Viewing de Silva's photographs, the scientists knew immediately the lizard hadn't been previously identified. In certain parts of the world, this type of discovery is not uncommon.

"Descriptions of new species happen every year," Henderson said. "But it happens much less often on smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles."

Much of the behavior and many characteristics of the lizard remain unknown. Henderson and Powell will travel back to Union Island in June for further research. Accompanied by undergraduate students, they will search for females of the species. So far, only male lizards have been collected.

"It's about getting down on your hands and knees and getting dirty," Henderson said about searching for the quick little lizards. "You're digging through leaf litter and it's hard to get your hands on them. You need a little bit of luck."

While luck plays a factor in finding the lizards, taking care not to harm the lizards while searching is also important. Being so small and delicate, Powell said the lizards are easily injured. The tropical environment also presents other dangers for the scientists to keep in mind.

"Scorpions and centipedes that occur in the same habitats [as the lizards] could deliver unpleasant stings and bites, even if they're not life-threatening," Powell said.

While two of the specimens collected in May and June remain at the Milwaukee Public Museum, one is being temporarily studied at the University of Texas-Arlington. Tissues will be taken for DNA testing to verify the lizard's genus and trace its closest relatives.