New Species of Alligator Lizard Discovered in Mexico

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An international team of researchers has discovered a new species of the lizard genus Abronia living in the forests of western Chiapas, Mexico.

Abronia morenica on a tree branch. Image credit: Adam Clause.

Abronia morenica on a tree branch. Image credit: Adam Clause.

Abronia is a large genus of medium-sized insectivorous arboreal lizards that are commonly referred to as abronias or alligator lizards.

These lizards belong to the family Anguidae and are endemic to Mexico and northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).

They mainly inhabit montane cloud forests where they are associated with epiphytes in the canopy of tall mature oak or pine trees. They give birth to between one and twelve live young once a year.

The newfound species, named Abronia morenica, is known only from the vicinity of the type locality in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, a globally important center of endemism.

“It’s this prehistoric, otherworldly forest. You are walking through swirls of dense mist from passing clouds, and the trees are dripping with bromeliads and ferns and orchids,” said Dr. Adam Clause, a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“The lizard is part of a remarkable collection of iconic animals that live in these isolated forests, such as jaguars, spider monkeys, and birds like the resplendent quetzal and horned guan.”

“We’re proud to add this lizard to that list and highlight the wonderful job the community of Sierra Morena is doing to steward the forest,” he added.

“Our big goal is to help them develop economically sustainable ways to continue to protect it.”

The lizard’s scientific name, Abronia morenica, pays homage to the unusual brown coloring on the adult males (moreno, in Spanish, often means brown skinned) as well as the nearby town that supported the scientists in the discovery, Sierra Morena.

“It’s hard, and that’s one reason why it took so long for scientists to learn these lizards even existed,” Dr. Clause said.

“When you go out to look for them, luck is a big factor. These lizards are so mysterious, it is a thrill to spot just one individual, much less an entirely new species.”

Due partly to its small known range, Dr. Clause and his colleagues from the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente e Historia Natural and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México recommend that Abronia morenica be categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Among other threats to their long-term survival, living at the top of a mountain makes these lizards particularly vulnerable to climate change.

“The discovery shows how little we know about our natural world, especially in areas where humans rarely tread,” Dr. Clause said.

“We have so much left to learn about the species living in these frontiers of exploration, like the forest canopy.”

“We can leverage new discoveries like this to create support for larger conservation initiatives that can ultimately help both people and wildlife.”

“It’s not just about this species — it’s what the species means to the community. For them, it’s a source of great pride, and they want to do their part to protect it.”

“That is inspiring, and gives us all great hope for the future of this biodiversity hotspot.”

The discovery is reported in a paper in the journal Herpetologica.

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Adam G. Clause et al. 2020. A New Species of Abronia (Squamata: Anguidae) from a Protected Area in Chiapas, Mexico. Herpetologica 76 (3): 330-343; doi: 10.1655/Herpetologica-D-19-00047

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