If you geek out over all things science and happen to follow NPR’s science tumblr, NPR Skunk Bear, you might have noticed some hubbub over “accidental discoveries” this past week.
Skunk Bear has been telling stories of happy accidents in the science world — those times when you were looking for one thing but found another. Think: the discovery of penicillin or the creation of corn flakes. This past week, we've read tales of researchers accidentally upping animals’ libidos, realizing that wasps have distinct faces just like us, and stumbling upon the bacteria streptococcus’ secret weapon.
Those three stories and a handful more earned NPR Skunk Bear’s “Golden Mole Award” for accidental brilliance in science. And that got us thinking: We’ve got tons of brilliant people here at the University of Oklahoma, right? There must be at least one story of accidental brilliance out there that Sooners would like to reminisce with us over.
And that, science fans, is where OU’s Cam Siler and the discovery of the world’s third fruit-eating monitor lizard — a secretive animal from the forests of the Northern Sierra Madre mountain range of Luzon — come in.
Discovery of Varanus bitatawa
In 2009, Siler and a team of researchers were stationed in the Philippines conducting a routine wildlife survey. They were tasked with documenting the diversity of amphibians and reptiles in the northern part of the country. The team kept hearing accounts from the locals about 5- or 6-foot-long fruit-eating lizards, bright yellow in color, that hide out high in the trees and are hunted by locals for food.
But the claims just didn’t add up, said Siler, assistant biology professor at OU and assistant curator of herpetology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
“First, only two monitor lizards in the world are frugivorous, or eat only fruit,” he said. “Second, none of these monitor lizards had ever been documented to occur this far north in the Philippines, despite over a century of scientific exploration in the country. Third, and most importantly, these species are huge and conspicuous. We are talking about 6-foot lizards that sometimes weigh more than 20 pounds as adults. So, how would such a species live for centuries in a region now populated with villages and still have never been discovered?"
On Siler’s final day on the expedition, a hunter happened to walk through the campsite carrying over his shoulder — you guessed it — the fabled neon yellow lizard.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Siler said. “It was honestly one of the few situations I’ve had where it was the last possible minute of an expedition, but we dropped everything we were doing and just spent the day photographing and documenting this massive lizard no one ever thought actually existed in this area.”
In 2010, researchers published a description of the new species, Varanus bitatawa (the first two frugivorous monitor lizards are Varanus mabitang and Varanus olivaceus). Rafe Brown, curator-in-charge of herpetology at the Kansas University Biodiversity Institute, said “bitatawa” is an homage to the tribal groups who had known about the animals for hundreds, or maybe thousands, of years.
“They have a name for it ("Bitatawa”), which we adopted as its formal species name (Varanus bitatawa), to show our respect for their local knowledge,” said Brown, who served as a project leader with the group in the Philippines. “The fact that they have a unique name for the species in their vocabulary indicates to me that they have been interacting with the species for many generations. So to them it was not a discovery — because they already knew it very well. It was really only ‘new’ to us western scientists.”
A Varanus bitatawa lizard on its home island of Luzon in the Philippines. Not discovered until 2009! pic.twitter.com/s2JaFLe4Iv— B_*rÿ äñ (@HatterGunn) March 3, 2013
Researchers hadn’t just heard stories of this massive frugivorous monitor lizard upon their arrival to the Philippines. In fact, stories had been circulating for years. Brown had suspicions that a new species of monitor lizard was there just waiting to be officially documented.
“Actually, It was first collected in the early 2000s but the people involved with that collection could not convince themselves that it was a new species,” Brown said, adding that's not uncommon when it comes to identifying a potential new species. That uncertainty primarily hinged on the age of the lizard that was collected. Researchers weren’t confident in describing a new species when the specimen was a juvenile.
“Luckily, once we saw a big adult, in life, and used these new technologies to carefully look at its anatomy and DNA variation, we got a clearer picture of its significance,” Brown said.
In addition to that collection, the species had been photographed prior to the 2009 discovery, too, said Luke Welton, herpetology collections manager at University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute who was pursuing a master’s degree at the time of the discovery.
“The interesting thing about this new species is that there was actually photographic evidence that something distinct had been hiding out in the forest, and that surfaced in 2002 or 2003,” Welton said. “The details are kind of fuzzy, but it was an ameatur bird watcher who snapped a photograph of a local hunter walking down a game trail and he had strapped over his back a lizard that looked nothing like other lizards from that region.”
Since its discovery, the monitor lizard has become a flagship conservation species in the Philippines. In 2011, the species was recognized as one of the top 10 new species discovered on our planet by the Arizona State University International Institute for Species Exploration.
And for Siler, it's an accidental discovery that will be difficult to top.
"To date, the unexpected discovery remains one of my most cherished experiences as a scientist, highlighting the profound fact that we have so much left to discover on this planet," he said.
It’s not uncommon for researchers to discover more than one species in a lifetime. (Heck, Siler was just in the news in 2014 for discovering a new species of tarsier, those tiny and ridiculously adorable wide-eyed primates.) But now that they’ve got this monitor lizard discovery under their belts and that backlog of scientific history knowledge, we couldn't help but ask what their favorite display of accidental brilliance is to date.
Siler has Alexander Fleming to thank for his favorite accidental discovery.
“I still, to this day, love the penicillin discovery,” he said. “All of what we do with preventing antibiotic-resistant bacteria or anything we’ve learned about medicine has started with these discoveries scientists made way back in the day. And that accidental discovery throughout time has been really exciting and inspiring to me.”
For Welton, he can’t think of anything better than discovering the third fruit-eating monitor lizard.
“It’s becoming less and less common for these sort of large — and by large I mean giant in size — discoveries to happen,” he said. “I think a lot of people are under the assumption that all these megafauna have already been found and described. The shock and surprised associated with realizing there are still these mass discoveries out there is really a cool thing. It motivates us to continue doing the work that we do.”