Media Releases

New lizard found in Dominican Republic

June 17, 2016

Suggests similar evolution occurs on separate islands

Toron­to, ON – A Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to-led team has report­ed the dis­cov­ery of a new lizard in the mid­dle of the most- vis­it­ed island in the Caribbean, strength­en­ing a long-held the­o­ry that com­mu­ni­ties of lizards can evolve almost iden­ti­cal­ly on sep­a­rate islands.

The chameleon-like lizard – a Greater Antil­lean anole dubbed Ano­lis lan­destoyi for the nat­u­ral­ist who first spot­ted and pho­tographed it – is one of the first new anole species found in the Domini­can Repub­lic in decades.

“As soon as I saw the pic­tures, I thought, ‘I need to buy a plane tick­et,’” says Luke Mahler of U of T’s Depart­ment of Ecol­o­gy & Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy and lead author of an arti­cle on the dis­cov­ery pub­lished today online in The Amer­i­can Nat­u­ral­ist.

“Our imme­di­ate thought was that this looks like some­thing that’s sup­posed to be in Cuba, not in His­pan­io­la – the island that Haiti and the Domini­can Repub­lic share,” says Mahler. “We haven’t real­ly seen any com­plete­ly new species here since the ear­ly 1980s.”

What’s more, the new species could help piece togeth­er a long-stand­ing puz­zle of sim­i­lar look­ing species that exist on dif­fer­ent Caribbean islands.

“I got a grainy pho­to from local nat­u­ral­ist Miguel Lan­destoy, who saw a nest­ing pair of birds that were mob­bing a branch,” says Mahler. “He saw they were fly­ing around what he thought was a new species of heav­i­ly cam­ou­flaged anole cling­ing to that branch.” It wasn’t pos­si­ble to say much from the pho­to though, and Mahler didn’t think much of it. “You get all these peo­ple who say they found a new species but it’s almost always just an atyp­i­cal indi­vid­ual of a very com­mon species,” says Mahler. “So you get pret­ty hard­ened against think­ing claims like these are legit.”

A few years after the ini­tial pho­to, Lan­destoy caught one of the lizards and emailed clear images of the find to Mahler and sev­er­al oth­er researchers he’d been work­ing with. “As soon as I opened the email, I thought ‘what on earth is that!?,’” says Mahler.

Well-stud­ied eco­log­i­cal­ly, Greater Antil­lean anoles are a text­book exam­ple of a phe­nom­e­non known as repli­cat­ed adap­tive radi­a­tion, where relat­ed species evolv­ing on dif­fer­ent islands diver­si­fy into sim­i­lar sets of species that occu­py the same eco­log­i­cal nich­es.

Exam­ples of this could be long-tailed grass dwellers, bright green canopy lizards, and stocky brown species that perch low on tree trunks, each liv­ing in sim­i­lar envi­ron­ments on more than one island.

Although most Greater Antil­lean anoles may have a match­ing coun­ter­part on anoth­er island, sci­en­tists have long known that a size­able frac­tion do not – rough­ly one fifth of the region’s anole species are ‘excep­tions to the rule’ so far.

Most notice­able among these unique lizards are Cuban anoles from the Chamaele­o­lis group.

Chamaele­o­lis anoles look less like typ­i­cal anoles and more like chameleons: large, cryp­tic, slow-mov­ing, and prone to cling­ing to lichen-cov­ered branch­es high in for­est canopies.

Sci­en­tists believed there was noth­ing like these Cuban lizards on the oth­er Greater Antil­lean islands.

Ano­lis lan­destoyi was found in the Domini­can Repub­lic but bears a strong resem­blance to Cuba’s Chamaele­o­lis anoles.

The new dis­cov­ery sug­gests that there may be few­er excep­tions to this island evo­lu­tion rule than the sci­ence com­mu­ni­ty pre­vi­ous­ly appre­ci­at­ed.

“Like the dis­cov­ery of a miss­ing puz­zle piece, Ano­lis lan­destoyi clar­i­fies our view of repli­cat­ed adap­tive radi­a­tion in anoles,” says Mahler, not­ing that the dis­cov­ery adds new sup­port for the idea that the buildup of eco­log­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties on islands can be sur­pris­ing­ly pre­dictable.

Though new to sci­ence, Ano­lis lan­destoyi is already at risk. The new species is restrict­ed to a unique habi­tat only found in a small area in the west­ern Domini­can Repub­lic that is rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing due to ille­gal defor­esta­tion. Mahler, who also works with the Inter­na­tion­al Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature (IUCN), hopes that the new dis­cov­ery will help to bring atten­tion to con­ser­va­tion issues in the region.

Next for Mahler and team is to fig­ure out if Ano­lis lan­destoyi evolved on His­pan­io­la to be strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to Cuba’s Chamaele­o­lis anoles or if the sim­i­lar­i­ty is due to shared ances­try. The new species and Chamaele­o­lis are close rel­a­tives, but are not next of kin.

“We don’t know if it’s con­ver­gence or the fact that it’s pret­ty close­ly relat­ed to Chamaele­o­lis, which may have col­o­nized His­pan­io­la from Cuba,” says Mahler. “But either way, things are more sim­i­lar across these two islands than we thought.”

“I always want­ed to describe a new species,” says Mahler. “Doing so is the ful­fill­ment of a dream I’ve had since I was a lit­tle kid.”

The study titled “Dis­cov­ery of a Giant Chameleon-Like Lizard (Ano­lis) on His­pan­io­la and Its Sig­nif­i­cance to Under­stand­ing Repli­cat­ed Adap­tive Radi­a­tions” was pub­lished online ahead of print in The Amer­i­can Nat­u­ral­ist. Sup­port for the research was pro­vid­ed by the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and Har­vard University’s David Rock­e­feller Cen­ter for Latin Amer­i­can Stud­ies.

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Luke Mahler
Depart­ment of Ecol­o­gy & Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 647–609-3766 © and 615–419-8952 ©

Sean Bet­tam
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–946-7950