Just a few years ago, the woodlizard, a genus native to South America and Panama, was regarded by scientists as a not particularly diverse group.
But now these tiny 'dragons' are gaining a reputation for heterogeneity, thanks to the discovery of three new species in the Andean cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru.
The research team, led by Omar Torres-Carvajal of the Museo de Zoologia QCAZ in Ecuador, collected several specimens of woodlizard while on expeditions in the Tropical Andes hotspot. The scientists noted differences between the new lizards and museum specimens and, with the help of DNA analysis, were able to classify the lizards as three distinct, not-yet-described species.
The findings, published Monday in the open access journal ZooKeys, delineate the characteristics of the newly discovered species.
Enyalioides altotambo, found in northwestern Ecuador, is unique in that it has brown eyes and smooth scales on the back. E. anisolepis, which lives on the Amazonian slopes in southern Ecuador and northern Peru, has large, scattered scales that project outwards. E. sophiarothschildae resides in the Cordillera Central of northeastern Peru and differs from other species by the large white patch under its chin.
As for the group, woodlizards are diurnal reptiles that reside in lowland tropical rainforests. And though these 'dragons' are often referred to as tiny in relation to their fire-breathing mythical counterparts, woodlizards are among the largest South American lizards, growing to be between 3 and 6 inches long. They're also known to be quite colorful, which makes it somewhat surprising that they have remained hidden for so long.
In 2006, there were just seven known species of woodlizard. Since then, Torres-Carvajal's team has discovered eight more, including these most recent three.
"During the last few years we doubled the number of known species of woodlizards, showing that the diversity of these conspicuous reptiles had been underestimated," Dr. Torres-Carvajal said in a statement.
These most recent findings bring the total number of known woodlizard species up to 15. The researchers write that their discovery of several new species at once is likely due to their carrying out fieldwork in areas that were "poorly explored."
"That more than half of the diversity of a group ... has been discovered in recent years should be heard by people in charge of conservation and funding agencies," said Torres-Carvajal.