"They look like tiny dragons. That makes them really attractive for some people," Torres-Carvajal told The Post by phone. "They are, to me, one of the most wonderful lizards in South American forests."
They are also among the largest lizards in South America, and these newly-identified species brings the total number of reptile species in Ecuador to 450, according to Museo de Zoología in Ecuador, where Torres-Carvajal works.
Woodlizards are big, reaching a length of 30 to 40 centimeters, and have huge heads relative to their body size. These bright and colorful creatures roam around during the day and sleep at night, which is when researchers caught them, as they snoozed on tree trunks, branches and atop of ferns. But little is known about their behavior. Some of these species can change colors, fading in tones from green to brown over a relatively-short period of time when under stress, Torres-Carvajal said.
An easy way to tell that you have a woodlizard on your hands: spikes appear to protrude from their heads, whereas many other lizards look like their heads are covered in shingle-like skin.
For many years, people didn't really set out to look for woodlizards, in part because of an assumption that the group wasn't all that diverse, Torres-Carvajal said. "But now we started looking for them and started finding lots of them," he said.
For this study, researchers looked at specimens from various expeditions that took place over the span of a decade, comparing them to other specimens in museums and examining DNA evidence before concluding that they had, in fact, found three distinct new species.
Since woodlizards are large and apparently diverse, it's hard to believe that so many are just now being discovered. But much of their territory remains unexplored.
Collecting woodlizards in these unexplored areas can be challenging -- it requires overnight camping trips and close encounters with all sorts of animals, some of which are venomous. Torres-Carvajal said the fact that he was based in Ecuador and co-author Pablo J. Venegas were in Peru made the work easier. The third author, Kevin de Queiroz, is based at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
"Also sometimes they walk really deep in the forest in areas where no one has been before," Torres-Carvajal said of researchers looking for new species. "If you break a leg, it would be very problematic." Teams will continue the hunt for new species during monthly trips over the next year, he added.
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