Tuesday, April 6, 2010

New Species of Giant Tree-Dwelling Philippine "Bayawak" Lizard Confirmed


There's a six-foot-long dragon in the Philippines and Science was only able to identify it as an unnamed species only now. Back in 2001, scientists first saw the skinny but long lizard in photographs. It had brightly-colored skin which differentiated with from a ground-dwelling lizard that's also eaten but less sought-after. People like to hunt it for its delicious meat in the northern part of Luzon island. No one really knows why it tastes so good but it's probably because it likes to eat pandan fruit (left), the leaves of which are used as an aromatic flavor enhancer of steamed rice. Now it's called the forest monitor lizard of Northern Luzon and is of the genus Varanus.

In a quest to find the creature, Rafe Brown of the University of Kansas set out with graduate students to the Philippines where hunters heard of their interest and brought a male that's barely alive. It was then that the team confirmed that it was a new species through genetic testing. Brown commented on how timely the discovery was since the team was already short on money and food.The tests showed the wide genetic gap between the forest monitor lizard and its closest relative, Gray's monitor lizard, which lives in Southern Luzon. This one is what most people there would likely identify as a bayawak (left).

In Southern Luzon, like in Batangas and Quezon provinces, bayawaks are sold by roadsides as a delicacy. The eggs are also cooked. At $4 per egg, this is a meal you can pass. Bayawak eggs are strange in that they will not solidify 100% if you boil them. But those whove tasted boiled bayawak eggs say that it's really delicious. You can also scramble or fry the eggs. For the courageous, other recipes can be tried. But sticking to chicken and duck eggs will probably help save the bayawak lizards from extinction - unless a way is found to farm them or they are already farmed and harvested like chicken eggs. The image at left is from a post in the MacGyver's Kitchen blog which describes one Filipino's experience in boiling the eggs. There are more photos of bayawak eggs being cooked here.

Anyway, back to the forest monitor lizard of North Luzon (top; left). So it lives in trees and is being hunted for food likely made it elusive enough for biologists to realize they've been missing something all these years, or at least that's what Brown concluded. Brown also theorized that the lizard does not grow as large as the Komodo dragon of Indonesia because it likes to live in the trees, which needed it to be light. The locals only see it as food. With the forest habitat of the lizard already shrinking with the encroachment of people, it easy to say that this poor lizard is already in danger of being extinct.

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