Lizard Snack Surprises Scientists

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While dining in a restaurant, a researcher found a previously unidentified species of lizard on the menu in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, Vietnam.

Besides being edible, there was something else interesting about the scaly snacks. Ngo Van Tri from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology noticed that the lizards, which were being kept in a tank in the restaurant, were nearly identical. The look-alike lizards, now named Leiolepis ngovantrii, turned out to be new to science.

 

To help identify the lizard clones, Ngo sent photos of the lizards to herpetologist colleagues in the United States. Leiolepis lizards tend to have markings that are common for their sex. All of these lizards had the markings of a male, according to an analysis by L. Lee Grismer, at La Sierra University in California, and his son Jesse, a PhD student.

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The Grismers flew to Vietnam to take a closer look at the lizards. By the time they got to the restaurant Ngo had visited, the hungry patrons had gobbled the whole tankful of lizards. But local school kids were able to catch nearly 70 lizards for the Grismers to study. The lizards were common in the area and are not considered endangered.

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Every one of them turned out to be female. They also had unique rows of enlarged scales on the forelimbs and bone layers under their toes, differentiating them from other Leiolepis species.

The lizards were found in a transition zone between coastal sand dunes and scrub lands. Grismer believes this all-female species may have originated as a hybrid between two related species which live in the two separate habitats. The findings were published in the journal, ZOOTAXA.

Species of all lady-lizards are not unheard of in herpetology. About one percent of all lizard species give birth without males. They give birth through a process known as parthenogenesis, Greek for virgin birth. The offspring are genetically identical clones of their mother.

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Parthenogenesis works like this: For most species, females have only half a set of chromosomes, or genetic material, in their ovum. The other half is contributed by the male. Females with ovums containing a full set of chromosomes, such as the case with these dish-of-the-day lizards, can give birth to healthy, genetically-identical clones.

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