Giant Lizard a surprise

 It
has a double penis, is as long as a tall human, and lives in a heavily populated
area of the Philippines. Yet somehow the giant lizard Varanus bitatawa has gone undetected
by science until now.

Long known to Filipino tribal
hunters, the golden monitor lizard was identified as a new species in 2009 via
its DNA, scale pattern, size, and peculiar penis, a new study says.

At about six and a half feet long,
the new lizard species is closely related to the world’s largest living
reptile, the Komodo dragon. Unlike the Komodo, though, Varanus bitatawa has
evolved to be a vegetarian.

The lizard discovery “comes as
an unprecedented surprise,” not least because V. bitatawa’s home island of Luzon is
“heavily populated and highly deforested,” the study authors write in
Wednesday’s issue of the journal Biology
Letters.

The researchers suspect the
22-pound lizard species escaped scientific detection until now because there’ve
been few reptile surveys of the mountain forests where V. bitatawa lives.

These fruit-eating lizards are also
“incredibly secretive,” said study team member and biologist Daniel
Bennett of Mampam Conservation.

“You could stay in that forest
for years and have absolutely no idea that they are there,” Bennett said.
“They spend all their time high up in trees, more than 66 feet above the
ground.” Similar lizard species spend less than 20 minutes on the ground
per week, he added.

But while scientists weren’t aware
of the lizard, its existence comes as no surprise to resident tribes people who
hunt the creature for its meat.

Photographs of
hunters with the lizard delicacy taken in 2001 spurred the team’s two-month
expedition in search of the elusive species last summer.

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