A scientist in Cambodia has discovered a new species of lizard that lacks both legs and eyes. The newly-named Dalai Mountain blind lizard (Dibamus dalaiensis) is the first member of its genus discovered in Cambodia, and the first reptile to be found, described and named by a scientist originally from the small Southeast Asian country. The discover highlights how much still remains to be learned about Cambodia’s wildlife, and the importance of protecting natural ecosystems in an area renowned for its biodiversity.
The Dalai Mountain blind lizard belongs to the family Dibamidae, a group of around twenty known legless lizard species that burrow in the ground and have little or no eyesight. The family is much less well known than another group of legless lizards belonging to the family Anguidae, which include the California legless lizard and the slow worm of Europe.
Though sometimes mistaken for snakes, legless lizards are set apart from snakes by their non-forked tongues, the fact that they have two lungs instead of just one, and other distinguishing features. Legless lizards apparently lost their limbs during the course of evolution, as they adapted to a burrowing life where legs were unnecessary. The resemblance between legless lizards and snakes is an example of convergent evolution, in which two groups of animals that aren’t closely related evolve to resemble one another because they share a similar ecological niche.
Though the Dalai Mountain blind lizard is truly unique, it took scientists about a year to verify with certainty that it is a new species. Neang Thy, the scientist from the Cambodian Ministry of Environment who discovered the species, found the first specimen under a log on Dalai Mountain in the Cardamom Mountain Range, and soon concluded that it was something unusual. After rigorous checking, Dr Thy and other researchers established that the Dalai Mountain blind lizard really is be a new species.
Dr Thy and colleagues published their discovery in the scientific journal Zootaxa. This makes the reptile one of the latest of a steady stream of new species discovered in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. The mountain range is home to one of the largest areas of intact tropical forest in Southeast Asia, but for years scientific access to the region was severely limited by the former Kmer Rouge regime. Only in the last couple of decades have Western scientists been allowed into the mountains, and been able to partner with Cambodians themselves in exploring the area’s rich biodiversity.
The list of new species found in the Cardamoms during the last few years includes a brightly colored pitcher plant flower, a frog with green blood and turquoise bones, and a gecko with a flattened head and highly camouflaged coloration. The mountains are also home to threatened and endangered species like the Asian elephant, clouded leopard, pileated gibbon, and several types of wild cattle. The Cardamoms and other natural areas in Cambodia are under pressure from deforestation, spurred in part by demand for timber and other natural resources in nearby China.
In fact the Dalai Mountain blind lizard may itself be an endangered species. Since little is known about its habits or the full extent of the species’ distribution, its conservation status is difficult to assess. Environmentalists face an uphill battle to protect at-risk species in the region, but international conservation efforts in the region are already underway. In December of last year the Asian Development Bank approved $19 million to go toward conservation projects in the Cardamoms and other parts of Cambodia. Residents of the developed world can help by choosing wood products from sustainable sources, which don’t contribute to demand for timber from Cambodia’s most vulnerable forests.