A nose-horned dragon lizard lost to science for over 100 years has been found

Nearly 130 years ago,
Italian explorer Elio Modigliani arrived at a natural history museum in Genoa
with a lizard he’d reportedly collected from the forests of Indonesia.

Based on Modigliani’s
specimen, the striking lizard — notable for a horn that protrudes from its nose
— got its official taxonomic description and name, Harpesaurus modiglianii, in 1933. But no accounts of anyone finding
another such lizard were ever recorded, until now.

This illustration of Modigliani’s nose-horned lizard was made in 1933 based on the original lizard first found in 1891. That specimen turned pale blue due to how it was preserved.C.A. Putra et al/TAPROBANICA: The Journal of Asian Biodiversity, 2020, Annali del Museo Civico di storia naturale di Genova 56, pl. VI

In June 2018, Chairunas Adha
Putra, an independent wildlife biologist conducting a bird survey in a
mountainous region surrounding Lake Toba in Indonesia’s North Sumatra, called
herpetologist Thasun Amarasinghe. Near the lake, which fills the caldera of a
supervolcano, Putra had found “a dead lizard with interesting morphological
features, but he wasn’t sure what it was,” says Amarasinghe, who later asked the
biologist to send the specimen to Jakarta.

It took only a look at the
lizard’s nose-horn for Amarasinghe to suspect that he was holding Modigliani’s
lizard. “It is the only nose-horned lizard species found in North Sumatra,” he
says.

Wooden arts and folktales of
the Bataks — indigenous people native to the region — show that lizards have a special
place in the people’s mythology. “But simply there was no report at all about
this species” following Modigliani’s, says Amarasinghe, of the University of
Indonesia in Depok.

He asked Putra to get back
to the caldera to see if there was a living population. After five days, Putra found
what he was looking for one evening, “lying on a low branch, probably
sleeping,” according to the biologist. He took pictures of the lizard and measured
the size and shape of its body parts, such as the length of its nose-horn and
head. He also observed its behavior before finally releasing it the same night.

Using this data, Amarasinghe
compared the lizard with the one described in 1933, and concluded that the
living lizard and the dead one that Putra had stumbled across were in fact
Modigliani’s nose-horned lizards. The Genoa museum’s dead specimen is pale blue
due to preservation, but it’s now known that the lizard’s natural color is mostly luminous green. Its camouflage and tree-dwelling behavior are
similar to African mountain chameleons, Amarasinghe, Putra and colleagues
report in the May Taprobanica: The
Journal of Asian Biodiversity
.

Modigliani’s nose-horned lizard both under normal conditions and under stress
A Modigliani’s nose-horned lizard is typically bright green and yellow (top), but the reptile turns brownish-orange under stress (bottom).C.A. Putra et al/TAPROBANICA: The Journal of Asian Biodiversity, 2020

The reptile belongs to the
Agamidae family of lizards, which are commonly called dragon lizards and
include species such as bearded dragons
(SN: 6/14/17). Shai Meiri, a
herpetologist at Tel Aviv University, has previously shown that many dragon lizards live in small, hard-to-access
areas
, making the reptiles difficult to
study. There are 30 agamid species that have never been seen since they were
first described, and 19 species which are known from just a single specimen,
Meiri says.

While thrilled with their
find, Amarasinghe and Putra are worried about the lizard’s future. “The living
dragon was found outside a conservation area, and massive deforestation is
happening nearby,” Amarasinghe says.

But the rediscovery offers a
glimmer of hope for the lizard’s conservation, Meiri says. Before the reptile
resurfaced, no one knew where exactly Modigliani’s lizard lived, or whether it had
already gone extinct, he says. But now, “we can study it, understand its
conservation needs and hopefully implement conservation measures.”

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