New Blind, Legless Lizard Species Found in Cambodia

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.

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Wildlife Rescuers Tend Critically Endangered Turtle in Vietnam

hoan kiem lake-turtleA giant turtle living in Vietnam’s Hoan Kiem Lake, which may be one of only four remaining individuals of its species, is being temporarily removed from its habitat in hopes that the animal can be treated for injuries and infection caused by degradation of its watery home.  Though the Hoan Kiem turtle itself is unlikely to become part of a breeding program, its popularity and the special place it holds in Vietnamese culture is an important tool for keeping attention focused on turtle conservation.  By treating the Hoan Kiem turtle’s wounds and cleaning up its habitat, wildlife rescuers hope to give it an opportunity to live out the rest of its natural lifespan in the lake.

Around the world freshwater turtles are declining at an alarming rate, with 200 out of about 300 known species being at risk of extinction.  The Indo-Burma peninsula where Vietnam is located is home to 53 freshwater turtle species, more than can be found in any other region of similar size.  Of these, 39 of the peninsula’s freshwater turtles are endangered or threatened due to pressures like habitat destruction, pollution of lakes and streams, and harvesting of turtles and eggs for food or the international pet trade.  Thus the turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake can be seen as an ambassador for a much larger assemblage of fascinating and at-risk creatures.

The Hoan Kiem Lake turtle is a 440-pound individual Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei).  It is one of the largest freshwater turtle species in the world, and the one in Hoan Kiem is thought to be between 80 and 100 years old.  Swinhoe’s turtle is perhaps the most endangered reptile species on the planet, with only four living individuals known.  In addition to the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle, a single male Swinhoe’s turtle is being monitored in Dong Mo Lake near the Vietnamese city of Hanoi.  Two other Swinhoe’s turtles live in captivity in the Suzhou Zoo in China.  Though conservationists hope to use these two individuals to start a captive breeding program, they have yet to produce fertile eggs.

Meanwhile the turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake is unlikely to be used for breeding purposes, both because of its great age and the fact that its presence in the lake is highly valued by local people.  According to a 15th century legend, a king named Le Loi was sailing a boat on the lake now known as Hoan Kiem, after having defeated an attacking army to the north of Vietnam.  The king was approached by a giant turtle, presumably a Swinhoe’s, which instructed him to throw his sacred sword into the water.  The story is still told today and the one remaining giant turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake still holds cultural significance.  Recently however, the Hoan Kiem turtle has fallen prey to pollution of its freshwater habitat.

During recent sightings, viewers of the Hoan Kiem turtle were alarmed to observe lesions and wounds on the turtle’s body, prompting a rescue effort.  This month the turtle was captured by a team of fifty wildlife rescuers, and is now being held in captivity while veterinarians treat its injuries.  Though no one knows for sure how the turtle was wounded, many believe litter and abandoned fishing hooks in the lake are to blame.  Officials are looking at cleaning up the lake habitat before returning the Hoan Kiem turtle to the wild, and hope the cultural icon can be saved to live out the rest of its natural lifespan.

Though large turtles can live a very long time, the one in Hoan Kiem Lake is already old, and probably has no more than a decade to live at best.  Meanwhile hope for survival of Swinhoe’s turtle as a species centers on the individual in Dong Mo Lake.  That turtle is younger than the one in Hoan Kiem, and more likely to breed if it can be brought in contact with a female.  Conservationists are searching for other surviving individuals, either in Dong Mo or elsewhere in Vietnam.  If more can be found a well-organized breeding program might possibly save the species.  At the same time, the lone turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake will hopefully continue to inspire awareness of turtle conservation for some years to come.

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