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Above and Beyond: New Alligator-Like Lizard Species Discovered Lurking High Up in Mexico's Treetops

Alligator-Like Lizard Found in Mexico Treetops After 7-Year Quest
Source: PLOS ONE

Five documented species of the Coapilla arboreal alligator lizards.

Jan. 23 2024, Published 9:13 a.m. ET

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In the treetops of southern Mexico, scientists have identified a new species of alligator lizard, expanding the exclusive family of these creatures found in Central America, according to sources.

Typically inhabiting humid highland forests, these elusive lizards often remain hidden due to their secretive behavior and limited geographical distribution.

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The pursuit of this enigmatic creature began in 2014 when photographs surfaced featuring a tree-dwelling lizard in Coapilla. Despite the initial sightings, the species managed to elude detection for several years, posing a significant challenge for researchers.

Over a span of seven years and five expeditions from 2015 to 2022, scientists faced extraordinary difficulty in locating the animal.

Detailed in a report published in the scientific journal Plos One, the researchers invested over 350 hours in ground searches and used climbing gear to explore the limbs and canopy of approximately 20 trees.

Their perseverance eventually paid off when they discovered five alligator-like lizards, leading to the identification of a new species named Abronia cunemica, also known as the Coapilla arboreal alligator lizard.

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Upon closer examination, the researchers observed that these specimens were unusually large, measuring up to 9.8 inches in length. The lizards exhibited yellow-brown scaly bodies adorned with darker brown blotches, and their eyes were pale yellow with dark flecks.

Found nestled between 11 and 64 feet up in the forest canopy, the Coapilla arboreal alligator lizards tended to make appearances in the morning and afternoon.

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During their observations, researchers encountered two pregnant females and a pair engaged in a courtship bite-hold on the forest floor, possibly after falling from a nearby tree. They noted the persistent behavioral traits of the male, who continued to bite the female's head and neck even after capture.

The new species received the name "cunemica" in honor of Cuñemo, the indigenous Zoque language name for Coapilla. While these lizards may exhibit sedentary behavior for parts of the year, researchers discovered that one female lizard was encountered twice within a 30-foot area, 97 days apart, suggesting a limited home range for these creatures.

Restricted to the vicinity of Coapilla, a town located in the southern state of Chiapas, approximately 430 miles southeast of Mexico City, the Coapilla arboreal alligator lizards are closely associated with humid highland forests. Researchers intentionally withheld precise information about their habitat to protect the newly discovered species.

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