KU Herpetologist Discovers Lizard New to Science -- on the Menu
The exciting scientific discovery was fried and served with tomato and lettuce on the side.
At least that’s how Biodiversity Institute graduate student Jesse Grismer first heard of a species of lizard heretofore unknown to scientists — it was featured on the menu of a restaurant in the remote Ca Mau province of southern Vietnam.
Grismer and his father — a herpetologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. — jetted to Vietnam in search of the unknown lizard based on a lead by a fellow scientist and family friend, Ngo Van Tri of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.
“He’s a real go-getter,” Grismer said of Tri. “He knew that I was working on Leiolepis for my master’s research. He took it upon himself to go to southern Vietnam. He went down there and collected a large series of these things and sent me tissue samples and also the specimens. They looked just liked the females of an already known species that existed there.”
But Grismer found it odd that all of the specimens sent by Tri were female and deduced that they were not commonplace Leiolepis reevesi. He sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of the tissue samples Tri had collected and demonstrated these lizards were more closely related to known asexual species of Leiolepis and not the known sexual species. After closely examining photos and specimens of the lizards, Grismer and his father determined that the lizards being served a la carte were likely new to science.
“We came to the conclusion that Tri had found a population of new asexual species,” said Grismer. “We were headed out there to collect some geckos for my father’s research and we figured we’d just make another pit stop with Tri to collect these lizards — we just had no idea what it would entail.”
Tri had informed Grismer and his father that the remarkable lizards were to be found on the menu at a particular restaurant in the Ca Mau region on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
After landing at Ho Chi Minh City airport, Grismer and his father embarked on a harrowing eight-hour motorcycle trek southward, calling ahead to the owner of the restaurant to reserve the remaining supply of lizards. But at the end of the journey, the KU researcher and his father were met with disappointment.
“We get there and — I can’t blame him — he had a bunch of customers come in and he was like, ‘Oh well,’ and he cooked them all up and sold them,” said Grismer.
So the restaurant owner put the Grismers and Tri in touch with locals who were able to help the scientists find more lizards. After collecting enough specimens, the scientists were able to consume a plateful of the species, too.
“We went back to the restaurant and he actually had more,” said Grismer. “So we ate some of them.”
Grismer said the taste of the new species is “nothing like chicken.”
“It’s a taste that — unfortunately — only a herpetologist could relate to,” he said. “I can only describe it in a herpetological context, it tastes like a bag of wet lizards.”
Further research into the lizard confirmed for the KU researcher that the population of lizards were indeed new to science.
“When we got back to the lab, we were able to lay out all the other known asexuals, including this new one, and then laid out a set of morphological characteristics, then created a key to diagnose if from other populations,” Grismer said. “It turns out that there are some really unique characteristics that separated this from all the other asexuals. On top of that, it’s geographically isolated. It’s the only asexual species in southern Vietnam.”
Because the Grismers were the first to describe the new species, they also had the chance to name the newfound species. They chose to honor their “hard charging” Vietnamese colleague Tri by christening the new species Leiolepis ngovantrii.
Although Grismer is near the beginning in his scientific career, he’s already taken part in describing and naming 19 or 20 new species.
“It’s always an extraordinary thing to find a new species,” Grismer said. “You’re finding a new lineage of life that’s never been seen before. I don’t think anyone would turn their nose up at that.”