Vavanus bitatawa is a 6 foot (2 meters), brightly colored monitor lizard that was hidden from science in the heavily deforested island of Luzon in the Philippines until 2009. Large terrestrial lizards rarely go unnoticed, and with its black and gold patterned scales, V. bitatawa is relatively conspicuous (Welton, et al. 2010).
It may be big, colorful, and inhabit a heavily populated area--Luzon is host to the three largest cities in the Philippines, including Manila, Quezon City, and Caloocan City--but V. bitatawa was unknown to scientists until 2009. The scientists who first recorded seeing the species suspect V. bitatawa, like its close relative V. olivaceous, is secretive and "hides" in trees (Welton, et al. 2010) (Read more: Behavior).
While the lizard was still absent from scientists' biodiversity register, it was well known to the indigenous Agta and Ilongot tribespeople, who regard it as a rich source of protein. In fact, the name Bitatawa is derived from the Agta tribe's common name for the species.(Welton, et al. 2010)
Despite its elusive nature, V. bitatawa cannot hide from the deforestation activity that is threatening its habitat in the northern Sierra Madre mountains. Locals are tearing down the forests for logging, both legal and illegal, and small-scale subsistence agriculture. The Philippines were thought to be nearly completely covered in primary forest, but in the late 1990s, studies showed less than 6 percent of the land cover retained intact lowland forest. Since then, reports show more forests are being cleared. Scientists say they hope charismatic species like V. bitatawa can become effective flagship species for conservation efforts for Luzon's forests (McGinely and WWF 2008) (Read more: Trends and Threats).
McGinely, Mark, and WWF. Luzon rain forests. Edited by Cutler J. (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment) Cleveland. August 22, 2008. www.eoearth.org/article/Luzon_rain_forests (accessed August 2010).
Welton, L., Siler, C., Bennett, D., Diesmos, A., Duya, M., Ruday, R., et al. 2010. A spectacular new Philippine monitor lizard reveals a hidden biogeographic boundary and a novel flagship species for conservation. Biol. Lett. Published online: April 7, 2010. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2010.0119.
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