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New Giant Monitor Lizard Discovered

How could a colorful, 6-foot-long lizard go undocumented for so long?

THE GIST:

- A large, colorful, "secretive" monitor lizard has been found in the Philippines.

- The Komodo dragon relative may have been elusive, in part, because it rarely leaves trees.

- Many more new species may be found in northern Philippine forests.

A "spectacular" new species of giant, secretive, colorful and fruit-eating monitor lizard has been found in a Philippine forest, according to a new study.

The reptile, named the Northern Sierra Madre Forest Monitor Lizard, is 6 feet long, around 22 pounds and brightly colored yellow and black. It is in the same family as the Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard.

"Rumors of its existence and some clues have floated around among biologists for the past 10 years," co-author Rafe Brown told Discovery News. Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas, and is curator of herpetology at the university's Biodiversity Institute.

He and his colleagues collected a large adult specimen from a forest at Northeast Luzon Island in the northern Philippines. They studied its anatomy and sequenced its DNA, both of which indicated that the lizard represents a new species. It is described in the latest issue of Royal Society Biology Letters.

"We think that it had not been discovered (before) primarily because of its secretiveness and because few comprehensive studies of amphibians and reptiles have been conducted in the inaccessible forests of NE Luzon Island," Brown said.

The huge lizard spends much of its time high in the trees overlooking the forest floor. Perhaps because of its size and apparent tree-specific body camouflage, it may be wary and cautious about exposing itself to terrestrial predators.

Unlike its Komodo dragon relative, the Northern Sierra Madre Forest Monitor Lizard is primarily a vegetarian, subsisting on Pandanus fruit, figs, Pili nut fruits and the occasional snail.

"We do not think it has a venomous bite," Brown said, thinking of the Komodo's venom. "It is not a carnivore, so it would gain no benefit from being able to deliver venom through its bite."

VIDEO: Bringing Back Weird Extinct Animals

The researchers believe the animal is a "keystone species," which means it helps trees by eating their fruit. The seeds are prepared for germination after they pass through the lizard's digestive tract and are dispersed via bodily waste.

While the new lizard is closely related to another species, Varanus olivaceus of southern Luzon and nearby islands, Brown and his team think three low-elevation river valleys served as barriers to mixing, keeping each type of reptile distinct.

Eric Pianka, one of the world's foremost experts on Varanus lizards, is an integrative biologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Pianka told Discovery News that this "new monitor lizard is indeed exciting. Who would have ever guessed that a 6-foot-long lizard could go undescribed until 2010?"

Pianka added: "This truly is major news!"

Although the lizard was undocumented until now, local Agta and Ilongot tribes people have known about the animal. They rely on its meat as a major source of protein. Brown, however, thinks the greatest threats to the lizard's population are "deforestation, logging, mining and a lack of knowledge about biodiversity."

"To prevent over-exploitation of biodiverse regions, we must first know what is there," he added.

He and his colleagues have already collected specimens in the region representing at least another 10 species -- mostly lizards and frogs -- unknown to science.

"The Sierra Madre of Luzon is a treasure trove of undescribed vertebrate biodiversity," Brown said. "We suspect that many, perhaps dozens of new species of small vertebrates -- reptiles, amphibians, and possibly birds and mammals -- may await discovery in the forests of the northern Philippines."

This elusive lizard lives high in the trees overlooking the forests of Northeast Luzon Island, avoiding contact with any potential terrestrial predators.

May 23, 2011 --

Earth isn't such a small world after all. In fact, plenty of animals, plants, fungi and more new to science are turning up every day. Each year, the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University compiles a list of the top 10 new species, be they the most interesting, unique or downright bizarre. We begin with the Louisiana pancake batfish, a flat, oval-shaped fish that hops, rather than swims, along the seafloor with its rear fins. This deep-water creature, which lives around 1,500 feet below the surface, was threatened last year by encroaching oil as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

These glow-in-the-dark mushrooms are native to a disappearing forest habitat near São Paulo, Brazil. Growing to a mere 8 millimeters tall, these mushrooms, known as Mycena luxaeterna, meaning eternal light mushrooms, emit their eerie neon-green glow 24 hours a day. Although there are an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi on Earth, only 71 species are thought to be bioluminescent.

Named after Charles Darwin, this Darwin bark spider (Caerostris darwini) can build webs that stretch along entire rivers. The largest discovered so far was 82 feet (25 meters) long. The silk woven by this arachnid architect is twice as strong as any other known spider silk. A similarly sized piece of Kevlar is one-tenth as strong as this spider's silk. Considering how large the webs are and how strong their silk is, you'd figure this spiders would be massive. But you'd be wrong. Females are no larger than 2 centimeters (less than an inch) in body size and males are five times smaller.

This toothy leech was discovered in the nose of a young girl in Peru. Known as Tyrannobdella rex, meaning "tyrant leech king," this blood sucker is found in the remote regions of the Upper Amazon in Peru. Although the leech is less than two inches in length, it has what its discoverers have called "enormous teeth" in a single jaw. The earliest member of this family of leeches lived about 200 million years ago, around the time of the dinosaurs. So it's entirely possible that this leech's ancestor spent its time up the nose of a Tyrannosaurus rex. There are some 700 known species of leeches worldwide.

How could this brightly colored, six-foot-long lizard go unnoticed for so long? Although the Northern Sierra Madre Forest Monitor Lizard (Varanus bitatawa is easy enough to spot in this photo, this animal managed to evade notice due to the fact that it rarely leaves the trees in which it resides in the forests of the Philippines. Unlike its Komodo dragon relative, this lizard is primarily a vegetarian, living on fruit, figs, nuts and the occasional snail. This lizard is the only reptile to make the top 10.

If you think this insect looks like a cross between a cockroach and a grasshopper, you wouldn't be far off. This leaproach (Altoblattella montistabularis) is a new type of cockroach with modified rear legs that gives it jumping ability on par with a grasshopper. Although jumping cockroaches existed during the Late Jurassic, they had previously not been found in the modern age.

This gilled mushroom was observed staying submerged for over 11 week in the upper Rogue River in Oregon. This fungus, Psathyrella aquatica, is the first known mushroom species found fruiting underwater.

First found at a bushmeat market in West Africa, this new antelope surprised scientists because it belonged to a well studied group of animals. This new species (Philantomba walteri) may have first been collected in 1968 in Badou, Togo, by its namesake, Walter N. Verheyen, an African mammals researcher. The antelope is the only mammal on the top 10 list.

This unique species of rust-loving bacteria was found on the sunken remains of the RMS Titanic, seen here located 12,600 below the surface. The bacteria eat iron-oxide and they're not doing the remains of the Titanic any favors: The microbes stick to metal surfaces and creates knob-like mounds that eat away at the Titanic.

This cricket is a pollination specialist. It is the only pollinator of the rare orchid Angraecum cadetii on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean.