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Scientists discover unknown lizard species at lunch buffet

By Brian Walker, CNN
  • Villagers have been eating the local lizards in restaurants
  • The species is unique: all of the lizards are female
  • Many new "discoveries" are old news to locals

(CNN) -- It may be an old menu standby to Vietnamese diners, but it's turned into a smorgasbord of discovery for scientists.

Researchers have identified a previously undocumented species of all-female lizard in the Mekong River delta that can reproduce itself by cloning, and the story of how it was discovered is almost as exotic as the animal itself.

Leiolepis ngovantrii is a small lizard found only in southern Vietnam. A Vietnamese reptile scientist who came across tanks full of the remarkably similar looking reptiles at small diners in rural villages in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province became intrigued when he noticed that all of the lizards appeared to be female.

So the scientist, Ngo Van Tri of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, contacted an American colleague about what he was seeing. His friend -- a herpetologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, California -- immediately dropped everything to come out to assess the find.

Professor's lizard discovery in Vietnam

Dr. Lee Grismer and his son, Jesse Grismer, a doctoral candidate, flew all the way to Hanoi and then faced a grueling two-day motorcycle trip out to a restaurant where the owner promised to set aside a stash of the creatures for study.

But there was a little problem, says Grismer.

"Unfortunately, the owner wound up getting drunk, and grilled them all up for his patrons... so when we got there, there was nothing left."

Another recent discovery: Red-bearded monkey

Faced with an empty tank and nearly dashed hopes, the men asked around at other cafes in the area for the local delicacy, and hired children to track down as many of the lizards as they could find.

The team soon had more than 60, and realized they had something special on their hands: a previously undocumented species.

"It's an entirely new lineage of life that was being eaten and sold in restaurants for food," says Grismer. "But it's something that scientists have missed for hundreds of years."

DNA sampling on the tiny reptiles brought another surprise: all of the lizards were female, and clones of their mothers.

It's a rare trait, but not unheard of. Some species of lizards and fish can adapt to parthenogenesis, or self-fertilization, especially when faced with adverse environments, pollution or over-hunting.

Grismer suspects that the lizards are a hybrid mix of two similar lizard species in the area, but one that is not sterile and is adapted to the increasing population of human farmers around it.

In fact, while scientists once led big expeditions to the most remote areas to find new animals, Grismer says today, that new frontier is quite often right in people's backyards.

"What we're finding is that local inhabitants know a tremendous amount about the natural histories of the regions in which they live," he says, adding that tapping into local knowledge has led to many new lizard discoveries. "It's not that they're not known... locals know all about them. It's just that they're not known to scientists."

So what does a plate full of Leiolepis ngovantrii taste like?

Well, nothing remotely like chicken, Grismer says.

"You wouldn't want to substitute it for a Big Mac or anything like that," he says, and you won't see lizard banh mi showing up on menus anytime soon.

Grismer complained that he had to hold his breath while eating the local dish to appear polite to the restaurant owners.

"You take a bite out of it and it feels like something very old and dead in your mouth," he said.