Many schoolteachers discourage their students from using traditional search engines, such as Google or Yahoo, when doing research, worrying that they will find information that is false or unreliable. However, for Jonathan Losos, Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America and curator in herpetology at Harvard, Google ended up being an invaluable way for him to discover proof of a lizard once thought to be extinct.
Losos was searching the Internet when he stumbled upon a photograph taken by a group of tourists in central Ecuador. The photo was of a proboscis anole, a small lizard defined by a horn on its nose. The lizard had been presumed to be nearly extinct, which discouraged many scientists who wanted to find out more about the small creature. In fact, no researchers had seen the lizard “in the field” since 1966.
Steven Poe, associate professor at the University of New Mexico and associate of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, had had similar sightings to that of Losos. He traveled to Mindo, in central Ecuador, in 2009 in search of more information about the proboscis anole. His trip may have seemed like a search for a unicorn at first, but ultimately paid off.
Poe and his team observed the lizard mostly at night, noting that it slept on the end of tree branches about twenty to fifty feet off the ground. The lizard is about six inches long, slender, and only the males have horns on their noses. Losos later discovered that the lizards could move the horn, that it’s not a stationary feature. They are still unsure as to the horn’s purpose, though it is likely used for mating or fighting.
In 2010, Losos headed to Ecuador to do more observations, but focusing his efforts on the lizards’ habits during the day. They would scout out a place where a lizard was sleeping at night, and then head back just before the sun rose so they could follow it throughout the day. They discovered that the lizards not only sleep, but also live on tree branches around ten to twenty feet off the ground. They move extremely slowly, which camouflages them so they blend in with the leaves and branches around them.
Losos began to understand why it had been widely believed that the proboscis anole was extinct or nearly so – they’re extremely difficult to find. With their small size and ability to blend in with their background, even those who knew what they were looking for found it difficult to spot them.
Along with his discoveries about the lizards themselves, Losos also made some strides in trying to understand lizard evolution. While there are anoles throughout Central and South America, they have evolved differently based on their location. However, Losos discovered that the proboscis anole has evolved almost exactly the same as the twig anole, a species found in the Caribbean. Aside from the horn, their habitats, movements, and adaptations are exactly the same.
Losos and Poe’s research has gone a long way in discovering more about these elusive lizards, and has answered many questions that have long nagged scientists. They also raised a few new ones, especially about the evolution of the lizards who live so far apart. Now that they know where to look, Losos and Poe hope to be able to find those answers as well.