Monitor Lizard Tops Food Chain On Remote Pacific Island

First Posted: Feb 24, 2016 11:06 AM EST

On the remote Pacific Island of Mussau, several hundred kilometers off the coast of its parent island Papua New Guinea, a new species of blue-tailed monitor lizard has been discovered, and it reigns supreme. "Veranus Semotus" is formally described as "isolated," as it is the only large land-dwelling predator native to the island.

The study, conducted by students from the University of Turku in Finland, found the lizard and described it as a "biogeographical oddity." Valter Weijola, a graduate student, led the group in the discovery, which was the first of a new monitor lizard on Papua New Guinea in more than 20 years.

Due to the isolation of the islands, predatory mammals have not colonized the region, leading monitors to play a big role in the ecosystem. Monitors, being large and intelligent, have filled the role of lead predator and scavenger so well, in fact, that they've spread across almost every island in Indonesia, the Solomons and Micronesia, according to a news release.

"Isolation is the keyword here," Weijola said. "It is what has driven speciation and made the South-Pacific region one of the World's biodiversity hotspots. For anything to arrive on Mussau (from New Guinea or New Britain) it would need to cross 250-350 kilometers of open sea, and this doesn't happen frequently. So, once the ancestor arrived, perhaps in the form of a gravid female, the population must have been completely isolated." 

Monitors can range in size from as small as 8 inches to as large as 10 feet (like the Komodo dragon). This new species, a female, was measured at 3.2 feet, with its tail being 1.5 times the length of the body, but can grow to be larger. Its body is black with yellow and orange markings, a pale yellow tongue, and turquoise to blueish tail pigmentation. Its been found to eat crabs, small birds, and other reptiles and their eggs.

"Usually monitors like these will eat just about anything they can catch and kill, as well as carcass and turtle eggs when available," Weijola said. "While young, Pacific monitor lizards are highly secretive and subsist mainly on insects and other small animals."

The islands of Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific are filled with animals not found anywhere else in the world. The region is expected to continue to be studied extensively, as researcher still know very little about the species there, and continually discover new species all the time, according to Weijola.

The findings were published in the journal ZooKeys.

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