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Officially horny: Phuket Little Dragon confirmed as a new species

PHUKET: Scientists on Monday (Dec 19) confirmed that Phuket was home to an entirely new species on the planet: a particularly horny lizard now officially known as Acanthosaura phuketensis.

animalsenvironmentnatural-resourcestourism
By The Phuket News

Saturday 24 December 2016, 11:00AM


The discovery was originally made by Belgian biologist Olivier Pauwels and his team Montri Sumontha, Kirati Kunya, Awat Nitikul, Phamon Samphanthamit, Perry Wood Jr and Lee Grismer amid jungle in central Phuket.

Although the discovery was published in the scientific journal Zootaxa late last year, the confirmation this week followed a lengthy verification process ensuring the lizard was indeed the first of its kind identified on Earth.

The Acanthosaura phuketensis grows to 35cm long and has long horns on the head and a row of sharp spines along its back, and the lizard’s name is dedicated to Phuket, explained Mr Pauwels. ‘‘It literally means spiny lizard from Phuket; it is an extraordinary discovery,” he said.

In spite of its scary looks, the lizard is harmless. ‘‘It feeds mostly on insects. It is very discreet, and lives on trees in dense forest. It rarely comes down to the forest floor,’’ Mr Pauwels explained.

‘‘Although Phuket is one of the most touristic places in the World, this is the third such major discovery our team made on this island, after a new gecko species and the now famous viper. They are endemic, which means they are found nowhere else on our Planet,’’ he said.

Pauwels, 45, who works as a Research Associate at the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium, has already described 80 new species.

Four years ago his team discovered a viper in the middle of the island, the ‘‘Phuket Bamboo Pit Viper’’.

They also discovered a unique gecko at the Khao Phra Thaeo Non-hunting Area in Thalang, where team member Mr Awat once served as chief. The gecko was subsequently named Cyrtodactylus phuketensis.

The rapid pace of development, driven by tourism and the island’s property industry, worries Mr Pauwels.

‘‘Human infrastructures still expand, threatening the last remaining tropical forest patches on the island. This new discovery stresses how important it is to save the remaining jungle on the island. If these forests disappear, many unique creatures which live only there will also disappear,’’ he said.

Piyawat Sukon, Chief of the Khao Phra Thaew Non-Hunting Area Office in Thalang, this week told The Phuket News that he was unaware of any new lizard species in his park area.

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“I know nothing about this yet, but our office should be informed for research,” he said.

“We have records of similar species in Khao Phra Thaew, the Marked Spring Lizard (Acanthosaura cf. Crucigera) and the Greater Spring Lizard (Acanthosaura armata),” Mr Piyawat added.

Mr Pauwels noted, “The marine environment of Phuket has been very well studied, thanks to the scientists working at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, but the terrestrial fauna of Phuket has been long neglected by biologists. This is probably due to the fact that the island is so touristic, and its forest has been mostly destroyed by tourism and agricultural developments. Biologists thought there would be nothing special to find there.

“But we were wrong! In 2004 a team of Malaysian biologists described a little gecko endemic to Phuket Island, which they named Cnemaspis phuketensis (endemic means that it is restricted to a certain geographic area and not found elsewhere in the world). So our team, led by Montri Sumontha of the Ranong Marine Fisheries Department and myself, decided to do intensive surveys on the remaining forest patches of Phuket,” he told The Phuket News this week.

“We worked in collaboration with the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre of Phuket and began to comb through the jungle. This led to the discovery of VanDeventer’s Rock Gecko Cnemaspis vandeventeri in 2010, the Phuket Pitviper Trimeresurus phuketensis in 2011, the Phuket Bent-toed Gecko Cyrtodactylus phuketensis in 2012 and the Phuket Horned Tree Agamid Acanthosaura phuketensis (also known as the Phuket Little Dragon) in 2015!

“Absolutely fantastic and unexpected! Cnemaspis vandeventeri and Trimeresurus phuketensis are not geographically limited to Phuket, but are also found in other mountains on the Thai peninsula; the others seem strictly endemic to Phuket,” he explained.

“[I am] Not sure if more reptile species remain to be discovered on Phuket Island, but who knows, so we are pursuing our research,” Mr Pauwels said.

“In any case, Phuket is now known to be home to several amazing and unique reptile species, and this is a very good reason to protect its remaining forest, in the same way protecting all the other species living there.

“All these unique reptile species are indeed forest dwellers, and would not be able to survive in highly disturbed forests or in agricultural environments. And agriculture is already encroaching on some good forest patches among the few remaining.

“There is also the risk that specimens are collected by animal dealers for the pet trade and end up in Chatuchak or the international market, this has to be closely monitored. The existence of unique species in Phuket, all found in and around Khao Phra Thaeo, can help ecotourism development as it might attract visitors who want to see these little jewels in their natural environment.

“It just adds to all the fun things to do in Phuket,” he said.

 

 

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