|What do you think? A new kind of skink!
By JANET McCONNAUGHEY
Associated Press Writer
The sweat-drenched scientist turned over yet another log in the Borneo rain forest. There, its chocolate-colored scales gleaming among the rotting leaves, was something new to science.
Quick as a skink, Christopher Austin's hand flashed out. He grabbed the tiny lizard, and another nearby. They were about 1 1/2 inches long with subtle gold stripes.
Austin, assistant curator at Louisiana State University's Museum of Natural Science, said he was amazed at the find.
"These small skinks are very hard to find. They're very poorly represented in museum collections. They also tend to be arboreal, on the tops of trees," said Austin, who's studied reptiles and amphibians for years.
"Probably in another second, I realized it was a new species. I was very excited," said Austin.
That was in the summer of 2003. It has taken until now to prove what he knew almost instantly, that Austin had discovered a new species.
Among other things, he had to count the scales on the tops, sides and bottoms of heads the size of a pencil eraser - and even on the bottoms of the lizards' tiny toes. After all, people in the jungle don't usually have DNA analyzers to identify animals they find. They need things they can see.
The process will culminate in March, when the Journal of Herpetology publishes a paper by Austin and Indraneil Das of the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.
Until that article comes out, Austin can't tell anyone the new find's scientific name. Its common name, he said, is Borneo striped skink, or Borneo striped lipinia.
Skinks are one of the most varied kinds of lizards - there are more than 1,300 known species. They tend to be glossy, with shorter legs and less noticeable necks than other kinds of lizards. U.S. species are found in back yards from California to Florida and as far north as New England and Minnesota.
Borneo is a hotbed for new species. At least 52 new animals and plants were found last year alone, the World Wildlife Fund reported in December. Hundreds have been found over the past decade, said Matthew Lewis, the fund's program officer for species conservation.
He wouldn't guess how many more may be undiscovered. "Nobody has really looked thoroughly yet," he said. "It's just a matter now of doing intense exploration and cataloguing of species that are there."
That work is essential, he said, because forests are rapidly being leveled for palm oil, coffee, cocoa and other plantations.
"There's a chance they'll disappear before they have a chance to be discovered by science. It's a widespread problem everywhere there's tropical forests," Lewis said.
Terry Schwaner, a herpetologist at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega, Ga., who, like Austin, has studied life in tropical rainforests, said, "Every new species you find is another little piece in the puzzle about how the whole group came about. That's what's important about it."
Austin wasn't looking for new animals when he found the Borneo skinks. Rather, he was on a sort of herpetologist's head count, a trip paid for by LSU to find out which kinds of reptiles and amphibians lived where on the world's third-largest island.
That meant tromping through the rainforest with temperatures in the high 90s and humidity at near 100 percent, wearing long pants and a long-sleeve shirt.
"Even though you're burning-up hot, it's really good for keeping mosquitoes off. And long pants are really good to keep the leeches off," he said.
Movies would have you think that jungle explorers must cut away vines and other plants. But that's usually true only at the edges: the dense canopy of leaves high overhead blocks out most light, so the forest floor is covered with rotting leaves and logs rather than living plants.
The underside of logs is a great place to find animal life, and Austin said he probably turned over hundreds before he found the new skink.
The same sort of thing happened last summer, on a trip to New Guinea which - like Borneo, is a "megadiversity" area. That trip, financed by the National Science Foundation, was aimed at figuring out why New Guinea has so many kinds of plants and animals.
He found several possible new species: a greenish-brown skink; a small, venomous snake related distantly to the coral snake; and two or three kinds of frogs, one of them a tree frog about 3 inches long from snout to back end.
He's checking out the snake first, a brown snake with darker swirls on its head. The first pass on DNA and some of the physical characteristics suggest a new species, Austin said.
He feels that their discovery is important. "The way in which the world works, species need to be described - they have to have a name on them before we can begin to protect them."