Lost & Found, Lizard Edition

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For nearly two centuries, Varanus douarrha was an enigma. Now it has been resurrected. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY VALTER WEIJOLA

In our book, lost and found is normally half glass full (versus half empty) new that we enjoy sharing, and this one counts as more than half full due to the intrigue of the history and the odd charisma of the creature:

A LIZARD LOST AT SEA MAKES ITS RETURN

By Marguerite Holloway

On June 27, 1824, a trading vessel en route from Mauritius to England was caught in a powerful gale. For ten days, winds pounded the King George IV until it could no longer hold together. In three perilous traverses, a small rescue boat shuttled those aboard to a beach near the Cape of Good Hope. “Neither myself nor the passengers have saved a single article,” the captain later wrote. “Probably they may cast up in time.” Amid the lost cargo—mostly sugar, cotton, and cloves—were three cases of scientific specimens.They apparently included one Varanus douarrha, a newly discovered species of monitor lizard, with black skin and white-yellow stippling that, at times, appeared to gleam bronze. The reptile had been plucked from its arboreal perch in what is now Papua New Guinea, catalogued in a French naturalist’s journal, and packed up to become a holotype—a specimen that serves as a physical reference for all others of its kind. When the King George IV sank, the lizard became a species in name only, a shadow without its body, and was largely forgotten.

Now, nearly two hundred years later, V. douarrha has cast up. According to a recent paper in the Australian Journal of Zoology, the lizard is thriving on New Ireland, Papua New Guinea’s most northeasterly province. Its reinstatement as a bona-fide species—the taxonomic term is “resurrection”—is part of a wave of findings made in the region in the past few decades, including a monitor with an orange-red head and one with a blue tail. Valter Weijola, a naturalist at the University of Turku, in Finland, was involved in finding both of those lizards, as well as V. douarrha. (He also helped find a giant rat.) “There was really nothing known about these animals, so, of course, for me as a young biologist it was very exciting,” he told me in May. “This is probably one of the most poorly studied groups of large-growing terrestrial vertebrates.”

Monitor lizards, the most famous of which is the Komodo dragon, are considered by many biologists who have studied them to have mammal-like smarts. Weijola met his first one at a pet store in Vaasa, Finland, where he worked as an adolescent. “It is hard to explain why you become so fascinated by an animal,” he said, briefly at a loss for words. When he was eighteen, Weijola travelled to Kakadu National Park, in Australia, where a ranger introduced him to Samuel Sweet, a herpetologist based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Sweet has radio-tracked dozens of monitors, visiting them daily for months at a time, chronicling their behavior and sophisticated mapping abilities. In his view, they deserve the many superlatives that have come their way. As Weijola became increasingly fascinated by monitors, he regularly consulted Sweet. Eventually, he developed an interest in V. douarrha. Previous studies had suggested that the animal presumed lost with the King George IV might be the same as one called V. indicus, or perhaps as V. finschi; biologists relying on museum collections couldn’t tell for sure. In taxonomic parlance, V. douarrha had become a nomen dubium—a doubtful name.

The lizard’s restoration to an embodied state began when Weijola visited Papua New Guinea for his doctoral research…

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