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A new species of lizard discovered in recent research

New Lizard Species

New Lizard Species -

UW biologists have discovered a new species of lizard named Sceloporus aurantius

Photo by Gyuri Han

A group of biologists from the UW’s Leaché Lab announced they have recently discovered a new species of lizard, the Sceloporus aurantius, in the process of studying a population of lizards from southern Mexico.

After testing out a new way to study molecular data from the group of lizards, UW biologists stumbled upon a new species of lizard that demonstrate a distinct morphological feature -— orange sides on their bellies — which is a key characteristic used by females to select males in lizard populations.

UW biology Ph.D candidate Jared Grummer and postdoctoral researcher Robert Bryson aimed to explore species delimitation, the process by which species boundaries are determined and new species are discovered, among a closely related group of lizard populations obtained from southern Mexico. The research team used molecular data from these lizards as the basis of their delimitation study.

“Everyone talks about species — biologists and everyday conversations talk about them a lot,” Grummer said. “But there have been many ideas proposed to discover what a species is and how it should be defined. We were trying to come up with an objective way that was not only what an observer thinks. The way should enable everyone to do the same method and to find the same result.”

The researchers isolated two types of DNA from this group of lizards: the mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) and the nuclear DNA (nDNA), which are two different genomes within organisms. Different regions of DNA strands were then amplified for further biogenetic analysis. From that analysis, the researchers developed their new method to describe relationships between different species down to the genetic level.

The researchers came up with a way to delimit species using molecular data that they hope will become widespread. At least five other researchers have started using their new method, including UW biology Ph.D candidate Itzue Caviedes-Solis of Leaché Lab, who worked on her project about molecular phylogeny and morphology of the Plectrohyla bisticta group (Anura: Hylidae).

“The method is important because it allows a statistical approach to delimitate species such as lizards, frogs, and snakes,” Caviedes-Solis said. “I used it in my own research because it is easy to implement. There are so many species with similar morphological features. However such delimitation method allows people to understand cryptic species better.”

Grummer and his team analyzed genetic data from different lizards of the group. In the process they discovered a population of lizards distinct from the rest of the group. 

In further morphological analysis, the researchers discovered that the uniqueness of this species of lizard lies in its shape. Bryson said they have confirmed this population of lizard also showed a distinct morphological feature, orange sides on their bellies, which was a key characteristic used by females to select males. The description of the new species of lizard has passed the peer-review process and thus has been published as a separate scientific paper.

“In our morphological analysis, we included five other different species within this group of lizards that were either located nearby this species geographically or could be confused with them based on visible characteristics,” Grummer said. “The fact that the result got published means other scientists made sure that it has been done correctly.”

Even though the discovery of a new species of lizard was considered to be “an unexpected result” by Grummer, researchers across the world have expressed their interest, according to Bryson.

“Jared and I are really excited about our discovery [of a new species of lizard],” Bryson said. “Researchers from across the world have been emailing us to get a PDF of the article. Links to our paper have also been popping up on social media.”

Grummer said that given the current climate change and human activities, species in these regions might go extinct before humans even realize their existence. He regarded such research as critical to understanding species across the world, especially in remote regions which are poorly studied. Though Grummer recognizes that it’s hard to see why people should care about the lizards, he knows that finding a new species like this is important. 

“One of the expressions I like is that the library is being burned before we can even read the books,” said Grummer. “We are making populations go extinct before we even know they existed.”

Reach contributing writer Zezhou Jing at development@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @Zz_Jing

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