In the largest batch of species discovery since the early 1800s, a team of researchers from Penn State University recently identified, and named 24 new species of lizards known as skinks, all from the Caribbean Islands. Of the thousands and thousands of described species out there, 24 new ones might not sound like much, but considering that we have the capabilities of monitoring every inch of the globe from space, it’s pretty badass that an entire set of lizards are still able to live under our noses without our knowing. The bad news, of course is that these newly minted species are probably already extinct, or at least on a fast track to that fate, according to the biologists who discovered them.
In a 245-page article published in the journal Zootaxa, the discovery of the skinks is detailed in length and reveals a striking variation in attributes such as size and the revelation that some of these lizards actually gave birth through live birth and gestational periods that could last for up to a year — which, if you think of every other egg-laying reptile on the planet, is a pretty rare feat. Skinks are generally known as new world lizards, who arrived in the Caribbean region about 18 million years ago, likely by floating on mats of vegetation from Africa.
A Caicos Island skink. Via Joseph Burgess.
While the research team identified many of these skinks using archived specimens, and determined classification based on visual observation and DNA sequencing, the discovery will undoubtedly have a pretty large impact on understanding the ecosystem of these often biologically isolated islands in the Caribbean Sea. According to Blair Hedges, the lead researcher on the team, “now, one of the smallest groups of lizards in this region of the world has become one of the largest groups.”
Unfortunately for us lizard enthusiasts, most of these skinks are now either extinct, or will soon be added to the list of species from the area who make the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List of Threatened Species.” It’s a rare case where our current human activity isn’t to blame, but the lizards decline is still likely due to human involvement: some rather irresponsible people introduced the mongoose to the area a couple hundred years ago, and the snake-killing mammals have since been slowly hunting the little lizards to extinction.
This lovely skink-pattern pinwheel comes from Blair Hedges at Penn State.
Why have we just now come to classify the these skinks that have lived literally under the noses of one of the most highly tourist trafficked areas in the world? Hedges takes a stab at answering this slightly head scratching puzzle. “First, Caribbean skinks already had nearly disappeared by the start of the twentieth century, so people since that time rarely have encountered them and therefore have been less likely to study them,” he said. “Second, the key characteristics that distinguish this great diversity of species have been overlooked until now.”
So, in short, they’re hard-to-find lizards that look similar to other lizards, which makes differentiating species difficult. Also, it’s a skink. When’s the last time you thought about a skink? It’s just too bad that, now that we’re talking about them, they’re likely already gone.