Abronia – alligator lizards of the cloud forests
The cloud forests of the tropics are mysterious places cloaked in mist and draped in lichen and moss. Unlike the hot and humid lowlands, cloud forests can often feel cool and damp because they are usually covered in cloud and temperatures regularly drop below 20 degrees at night. That means ideal conditions for highland specialist amphibian and reptile species.
The highlands of the tropics are often highly biodiverse, with mountain ranges, or valleys, that are home to a community of species that are unique to that area. Alta Verapaz, in the Central Highlands of Guatemala, is no exception. As well as being home to a suite of endangered amphibians, Alta Verapaz is also a haven for some very special reptiles.
In May 2015, we ran our first Conservation Expedition to the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz in search of all things amphibian and reptile. Our pilot study in 2014 had found 23 species in 3 days and we were feeling optimistic and inspired about spending 2 weeks there this time round. High up on our list of species we really wanted to see were the alligator lizards of the genus Abronia.
Abronia are considered by many experts to be one of the most endangered groups of lizards in the world. This is due in part to the fact that each species has a highly restricted range which often highly threatened by habitat loss, and also because they are illegally collected for the pet trade. The location for our cloud forest studies is in an interesting spot for Abronia, as the ranges for two species overlap in this region, which is very unusual for the group.
We knew that it was going to be a tough job to find one. Abronia are highly arboreal, meaning they spend most of their time in the forest canopy hidden under moss and lichen that adorns the branches. They very rarely descend to the a height where humans can see them without climbing high into the trees. They also happen to be exceptionally well camouflaged. After several days of searching the forests for a glimpse of the elusive lizard we had had no luck. So imagine our surprise when one was spotted high in the rafters of the shower block! The inquisitive creature was peering at us as much as we were at it!
Upon closer inspection we realised this was a juvenile Abronia fimbriata, also known as the brilliant alligator lizard. Yes, that is its common name – and brilliant it was.
The brilliant alligator lizard is classed as Endangered by the IUCN and is only know from an area of 1500km2 in Central Guatemala. Even though we only found one individual, because it was a juvenile we know that the species is breeding successfully here – good news for a highly threatened reptile!
Since 2015, we have regularly found brilliant alligator lizards during our expeditions to the cloud forests and are starting to get a real insight into their ecology and behaviour. Over the coming years we hope to start a monitoring project that will take a closer look into their lives through hands-off observational studies.
First Published: 2 April 2015