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Herpetologists have found a brand new, ninth species of dragon lizard within the genus Smaug, beforehand mistaken for a similar-looking species, S. barbertonensis.

The Smaug genus is known as for the lethal dragon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. With dense, alligator-like armor, these small, real-life dragon lizards are like rock-crevice recluses principally confined to mountaintops in southern Africa.

Researchers named the brand new species, a closely plated darkish brown lizard with pale yellow bands, swazicus, or the Swazi dragon lizard, in honor of the nation of Eswatini, the placement the place many of the species’ vary is positioned.

As much as 13 inches from snout to tail tip, S. swazicus is an unusually huge lizard for the area.

“When it comes to bulk and precise recorded whole size, Smaug swazicus could be the largest southern African lizard species described for the reason that western big plated lizard, Matobosaurus maltzahni, 82 years in the past,” says Michael Bates, a curator at South Africa’s Nationwide Museum in Bloemfontein.

Whereas species within the Smaug genus, often known as girdled lizards, might have scaled-down variations of their fearsome namesake’s shield-like scales and sword-like enamel, they’ve light inclinations, says Edward Stanley of the Florida Museum of Pure Historical past on the College of Florida.

A row of Smaug lizards sit on a white background, some with darker scales and yellow markings and others with lighter scales and brown markingsSpecies within the genus Smaug are notably tough to tell apart from each other. S. barbertonensis, from left, S. swazicus and S. warreni show three distinct colour patterns that some researchers initially attributed to variation in particular person lizards. (Credit score: Edward Stanley/Florida Museum)

“They’re simply little tanks,” says Stanley, additionally the director of the Florida Museum’s Digital Discovery and Dissemination Laboratory. “They disguise in rock cracks and put loads of their vitality and energy into merely being spiky and inedible, in order that they don’t need to put up an enormous combat.”

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Stanley led a bunch of scientists that named the Smaug genus in 2011, and he has been instrumental in parsing out its species. “Smaug,” he explains, comes from the German phrase “smugan,” which implies “to squeeze by means of a gap.” These lizards are additionally discovered close to South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains, Afrikaans for “dragon mountains.”

Smaug dragon lizards are tremendous pleasant

Whereas Africa has an unlimited range of lizards, girdled lizards are the one household unique to mainland Africa and, due to their crevice-dwelling way of life, typically keep on with particular habitats. Because of this, Stanley says sure Smaug species may have extra stringent conservation methods.

“S. barbertonensis already had a comparatively restricted vary, however that’s clearly earlier than it was cut up in half when S. swazicus was found,” he says. “So, though barbertonensis wasn’t of concern earlier than, it now has a spread of solely round 200 sq. miles,” an space lower than the dimensions of Chicago.

A researcher holds the Swazi dragon lizard in both handsS. swazicus lives in rock crevices on the mountaintops of southern Africa. It resembles S. barbertonensis, one other species within the Smaug genus, however DNA evaluation confirmed it’s extra intently associated to S. warreni. (Credit score: Edward Stanley)

Tethered to high-elevation boulder-filled habitats, dragon lizards may already be feeling the consequences of a warming local weather, Stanley says. Securing rock crevices by which to cover may change into difficult as dragon lizards creep to greater elevations searching for decrease temperatures.

“These creatures are brilliantly advanced for his or her surroundings. If issues aren’t executed to guard them, we may lose 20 million years of evolution in 50 years,” he says. “The vital factor is that you might want to characterize and determine animals earlier than you possibly can defend them. You have to know what you’ve gotten earlier than you can also make a plan to guard it.”

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However discovering lizards in southern Africa could be daunting: Stanley and his fellow researchers needed to dodge every thing from mambas to undetonated explosives. When crew members expanded their search to well-shaded boulders on a navy base, they had been accused of being gold prospectors, thieves, and pet commerce sellers.

The bony plates of the dragon lizard are colored blue, and run all down the length of the lizard's body Stanley’s work on the Florida Museum locations an emphasis on CT scanning specimens to higher perceive their anatomy. CT scanning captures the intricate patterns of bony plates often known as osteoderms in dragon lizards. (Credit score: Edward Stanley/Florida Museum)

“We needed to spend all morning explaining, ‘No, we’re not right here for any of that—we’re actually right here simply to attempt to discover some lizards in your military base,’” Stanley says. “And in reality, as a result of the vary was so unpopulated, the lizards we discovered there have been fairly pleasant.

“It was a bizarre expertise having spent such a very long time on the lookout for them after which going into this form of backyard the place they’d run in your lap and bounce into your arms.”

Sorting lizards is like sorting sweet

Stanley’s subsequent run-in with the brand new species wasn’t deep within the South African escarpment. He says he acknowledged the species from his time on the American Museum of Pure Historical past, the place there was a jar of unidentified pet commerce specimens from the early 1980s within the herpetology assortment.

“That’s the great factor about museums, isn’t it? It’s not like these animals are sitting underground, by no means earlier than seen. A number of occasions they’re simply hiding in plain sight,” he says.

To distinguish similar-looking species, Stanley and Bates relied on conventional approaches based mostly on bodily options, CT scanning, and DNA evaluation, a course of he in comparison with sorting sweet.

“Say you’ve gotten totally different sorts of candies that you might want to kind by sort,” Stanley says. “You begin by visually sorting all of your M&M’s into one pile and your Mike and Ike’s in one other.”

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Then comes the DNA evaluation—in different phrases, the style take a look at.

“So, you pattern your candies, and you discover that there are a proportion of M&M’s you’ve sorted which might be really Skittles, and then you definitely discover that as a substitute of an ‘M,’ they really have a tiny ‘S’ on them,” Stanley says. “Now you can pull these out and say, ‘Oh, I even have three candies.’”

The brand new species of dragon lizard could be in comparison with the Skittles, Stanley says—related in look to S. barbertonensis, however with slight genetic variations that present it’s extra intently associated to a different species of dragon lizard, S. warreni.

The evaluation additionally allowed Stanley and Bates to parse minor bodily variations that different researchers initially attributed to particular person variation and helped clarify why Bates’s earlier examination of museum specimens had revealed three distinct colour patterns in dragon lizards.

Stanley says he can’t rule out the likelihood that extra species within the group await discovery.

“Even now, on this well-worked group in these very populated nations of South Africa and Eswatini, which have had loads of herpetologists working for tons of of years, there are nonetheless some cool discoveries to be made,” he says.

“That’s the most important a part of the story for me, is that there are some superior animals on the market simply undescribed.”

The findings seem within the journal PeerJ.

Supply: College of Florida