Monday, May 14, 2012

New Cordylus from Central Africa

Cordylus marunguensis

An international collaboration of scientists has announced the discovery of a new species of lizard from remote, war-torn mountains in Central Africa. The new species, Cordylus marunguensis, is described from the Marungu Plateau, a montane area west of Lake Tanganyika in south-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The expedition that led to the new species discovery in 2010 was led by Eli Greenbaum, assistant professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Texas at El Paso, and Chifundera Kusamba, a research scientist from the Centre de Recherche en Sciences Naturelles in Congo. The team spent several weeks exploring the area around the plateau for new species of amphibians and reptiles. The new lizard was discovered near the village of Pepa under rocks in grassy fields that were riddled with landmines and unexploded ordnance left over from a heavy conflict that engulfed the region at the turn of the 21st century.

Suspecting the lizard represented a new species, Greenbaum sent DNA samples to Edward Stanley, a student at the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School in New York City. Mr. Stanley compared the DNA of the Marungu lizard to similar species throughout Africa and confirmed that it was indeed a new species to science. He bolstered the finding by using a new technique called high resolution x-ray computer tomography to reconstruct the lizard’s skeleton in three dimensions, the first time such a technique has been used in a living lizard species description.

The digital reconstruction confirmed the presence of tiny bones called osteoderms in the heavily armored scales of the new species. The reinforced scales are thought to protect the lizards from attacks by predators, and in some cases, to allow the animals to avoid attacks by wedging themselves between small, rocky crevices.

The discovery of the new species offers hope for conservation, even though none of the lizard’s habitat is currently protected.

"Although the Marungu Plateau has been heavily damaged by warfare and habitat destruction, the new lizard proves that it is not too late to implement conservation efforts," said Greenbaum. It is hoped that the new discovery will lead to the protection of the plateau’s unique plant and animal biodiversity in the near future.

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