A new species of an “unusually large” alligator-like lizard has been discovered in the treetops of southern Mexico, after scientists spent years searching for the elusive reptile.
A study published in the journal PLOS One last week revealed that the dogged quest to find the scaly critter, dubbed the Coapilla arboreal alligator lizard — or Abronia cunemica — spanned five separate expeditions between 2015 and 2022, as Miami Herald first reported.
The tree-dwelling creatures first appeared on the scientists’ radar in 2014, when a handful of “intriguing” photographs taken in the vicinity of the town of Coapilla, Chiapas state, emerged.
What followed was a search of “extraordinary difficulty” involving teams of researchers who spent a total of over 350 hours scouring the ground and scaling the branches and canopies of some 20 trees, according to the publication.
The scientists’ hard work ultimately paid off, resulting in the discovery of five individuals of the Coapilla lizard. A closer study of the creatures revealed that it was a previously unknown species.
Coapilla arboreal alligator lizards can reach 9.8 inches in length. They have yellow-brown scaly bodies covered in darker brown patches, but as seen in photos published in the study, their coloration may vary.
The lizards’ eyes are pale yellow with dark specks. One of the specimens documented in the study had a broken tail.
The lizard were found between 11 and 64 feet up the trees, according to the research. They were most often seen in the morning and afternoon — and two of the creatures were females that “appeared to be pregnant.”
Scientists also spotted a pair of lizards “in a courtship bite-hold on the forest floor. When they captured the male, he stopped biting the female, but then “re-initiated a more persistent bite hold on her head and neck” later in the day.
The new species was christened “cunemica” after Cuñemo, the “indigenous Zoque language” name for the town of Coapilla where the lizards were observed.
Scientists said they were “intentionally” vague about the exact location of their discovery in a bid to protect the species.
Alligator lizards are only found in Central America’s humid highland forests. Most of the species in that group are “mysterious” and rarely seen because of their “cryptic behavior” and limited distribution area.