Science discovers and describes new species all the time, but a lizard found recently in Vietnam stands out for several reasons. For one thing, the species is made up of all females. It also reproduces by cloning itself.
The tiny lizard, newly dubbed Leiolepis ngovantrii and described in an article on Physorg.org, may be new to science, but it has long been known in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, where it is frequently served in restaurants.
In fact, that's where Ngo Van Tri from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology discovered the species. While dining at a restaurant in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, Ngo noticed a tank full of identical-looking lizards waiting to become dinner. Ngo photographed the lizards and sent the pictures to a colleague, herpetologist L. Lee Grismer from La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif.
From the photos, Grismer could tell that the lizards belonged to the Leiolepis genus, but he was intrigued by the fact that all of the creatures in the tank looked exactly alike. Other species in that genus vary their coloration by gender, so it seemed odd that one restaurant would have so many lizards that all shared the same appearance.
Grismer and his son Jesse, a Ph.D. student, flew out to Vietnam, but by the time they got there, the restaurant had grilled up and served all of its lizards, Grismer told told CNN. (The restaurant owner was described as a "crazy guy" who got drunk instead of waiting for the Grismers to arrive.)
No worries. The scientists enlisted the aid of local children who scoured the nearby landscape and quickly came up with 70 more lizards. And yup, they were all female.
The two Grismers studied the animals, then officially classified and named the species, the first time it had been described by science. They also tested its DNA, which showed that the species might possibly be a hybrid of two other, related lizards. Their research (pdf) appears in the journal Zootaxa. (Their paper was actually published online April 22, but it is just being publicized now.)
Parthenogenesis — the process of reproducing without males — isn't exactly common in the animal kingdom, but neither is it rare. Several other lizard species reproduce asexually, either all the time, like the New Mexico whiptail, or occasionally, like the Komodo dragon.
While this new species is obviously somewhat common, that doesn't mean it is safe forever. Its nature as a hybrid may make it more vulnerable, says herpetologist Charles Cole of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who says hybrids have a reduced level of genetic variation and may therefore be more vulnerable to extinction-level events. Reproduction by cloning also reduces genetic variation.
But for now, Leiolepis ngovantrii is both safe, novel, and — reportedly — delicious.