Three new lizards that researchers describe as "dragon-esque" have just been discovered in the Andean cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru.
The woodlizards, which really do look like tiny dragons, are described in the latest issue of the journal ZooKeys.
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"That more than half of the diversity of a group of large, dragon-looking reptiles from South America has been discovered in recent years should be heard by people in charge of conservation and funding agencies," lead author Omar Torres-Carvajal of Ecuador's Museo de Zoologia said in a press release.
The discoveries increase the known number of woodlizards to 15.
He and colleagues Pablo Venegas and Kevin de Queiroz explained that the reptiles are active during the day and live in lowland tropical rainforests, such as the Chocó and western Amazon basin, as well as cloudforests on both sides of the Andes.
Although the finds were made in a region known as the "Tropical Andes hotspot," cloudforests are known less for heat than for their near-persistent low-level cloud cover. They typically are located at altitudes between 3000 and 8000 feet, and are characterized by wet tropical mountain forests.
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DNA analysis proved that the newly found lizards represent new species.
Could ancient people have noticed the lizards and been inspired to create dragon myths about them? It's possible.
At least three indigenous cultures from South America created stories about dragons. Folklore from Patagonia, the Jivaro of Ecuador's Amazon region and certain other cultures referred to dragon-like animals. Dragon myths, however, seem to be a worldwide phenomenon. Countries like China and India also have popular dragon myths.
Indonesia, in particular, has its Komodo dragon lizards. With some imagination, these huge carnivorous lizards do sort of look like they are spitting fire when they forcefully stick out their long tongues. The mouths of Komodo dragons may also contain venom-like proteins that can cause intense pain in victims.
The "dwarf dragons" -- some of which measure just under 5 inches in length -- aren't nearly as threatening. There could be a lot more of them, though.
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As Torres-Carvajal said, "I started working with woodlizards in 2006 as part of my postdoc at the Smithsonian Institution under the direction of Kevin de Queiroz. At that time, only seven species of woodlizards had been described, and they were recognized in the literature as one of the less diverse groups of South American lizards."
"During the last few years," he added, "we doubled the number of known species of woodlizards, showing that the diversity of these conspicuous reptiles had been underestimated."
Photo: The newly discovered Enyalioides sophiarothschildae, Credit: Pablo Venegas