One of nature’s Hide And Seek world champions has been discovered after being lost to science for 129 years. First discovered by Italian explorer Elio Modigliani in Indonesia, the bizarre-looking lizard was eventually recorded as a new species, Harpesaurus modiglianii, and then never seen again. That was until 2018, when independent wildlife biologist, Chairunas Adha Putra, stumbled across one while conducting a bird survey in North Sumatra. The astonishing discovery was published in The Journal of Asian Biodiversity.
The striking lizard is, unsurprisingly, characterized by a horn that sticks out from its nose. A vibrant lime green with spiny projections along its backbone, it resembles some sort of fabulous citrus dragon. It’s unsurprising then, that when Putra first discovered a deceased specimen and presented it to herpetologist Thasun Amarasinghe he knew immediately what they were dealing with. “It is the only nose-horned lizard species found in North Sumatra,” Amarasinghe told Science News.
The specimen was sent to Jakarta and Putra was asked to go back to Caldera, the part of North Sumatra where he found the dead lizard, to see if he could find a living population. After five days of searching, he finally struck gold one evening as he came across another nose-horned dragon lizard – this time alive – sleeping on a low branch. Taking care not to spook the elusive animal, he took some photos and measured the size and shape of its body parts.
The data and dead lizard were compared to Modigliani's specimen and it was confirmed that both the dead and living animals Putra had found were in fact Modigliani’s nose-horned lizards. The reptile belongs to the Agamidae family known as the dragon lizards alongside bearded dragons, and like a chameleon it can change color when threatened, turning brownish-orange.
Finding a species before losing it again might sound like a rare occurrence but there are actually 30 agamid species that haven't been seen since they were first described, 19 of which are only known from a single specimen, making the nose-horned dragon lizard sort of ordinary (but don’t tell it we said that). The circumstance makes sense when you consider that many of these animals are living in some of the most remote parts of Earth, being small in size and well-adapted to their environment. Putra’s achievement of discovering a living specimen of a lizard he was seeking to find in just five days is really quite impressive.
Now that the nose-horned has been found again, Armasinghe and Putra are eager that it not be lost to human interference. “The living dragon was found outside a conservation area, and massive deforestation is happening nearby,” Amarasinghe said, but they have hopes for the future. “We can study it, understand its conservation needs, and hopefully implement conservation measures.”