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Varanus bitatawa Print E-mail

Varanus bitatawa is the third species of  monitor lizard to be recognised by science that belongs to the "Pandan Biawak" group,  all of which are of at least as great a conservation concern as the Komodo dragon, but receive virtually none of the attention. Pandan Biawak occur only in lowland dipterocarp forest. The first species (Varanus olivaceus or Butaan) was discovered in 1845 and not seen alive by a scientist until the late 1970s. The next species (Varanus mabitang or Mabitang) was discovered in 2001 and in 2010 Varanus bitatawa (Butikaw or Bitatawa) was described. Other species of frugivorous monitor lizards may remain undescribed, but many may have  gone extinct without ever having been recognised.


The first known picture of Varanus bitatawa was taken in 2001 by Ms. Perla Visoro. The animal first came to my attention in 2003 when Merlijn van Weerd showed me pictures of an unusual animal that had been killed for food with a machete. Other pictures from field workers (Jessie Guerrero, M. Roy Duya and Tessa Minter) confirmed that there was a very usual and variably coloured monitor lizard in Sierra Madre that was very similar to Varanus olivaceus. Consequently I visited Sierra Madre as a guest of CVPED and the Mabuwaya Foundation, where we found incontrovertible evidence of a large frugivorous monitor lizard. Thanks to a BP Conservation Award and grants from Chester Zoo (UK) and Dallas Zoo (USA) we worked in cooperation with CVPED and the Mabuwaya Foundation, and engaged Roldan Dugay to investigate the new animal. In 2004 Roldan obtained the first specimen on the new species (PNM 9008 in the Philippine National Museum). However there was no suitable specimen of Varanus olivaceus to compare the new lizard to, and although  the new species had very different pattern and coloration, its scalation seemed identical to Varanus olivaceus. We showed the specimen and photographs to various taxonomist experts who differed in their opinion of whether the Sierra Madre animals differed enough from Varanus olivaceus to be a new species. The following year Edmund Leo B. Rico together with Nestor A. Bartolome and Uldarico Carestia found more evidence of the new species elsewhere in Sierra Madre.

On 29 June 2009 Luke Welton, a student at the University of Kansas under the supervision of Dr Rafe Brown, and others collected a specimen of the new lizard in Aurora province, Philippines. This animal is catalogued as PNM 9719 in the Philippine National Museum herpetological collection. On 6 July 2009 Luke Welton and others collected a specimen of Varanus olivaceus from Polillo Island, Quezon province, Philippines. This animal is KU 322187 in the Kansas University Museum herpetological collection. These two specimens were used in the description of Varanus bitatawa published in Biology Letters in April 2010.

The full citation of the paper is


Luke J. Welton, Cameron D. Siler, Daniel Bennett, Arvin Diesmos, M. Roy Duya, Roldan Dugay, Edmund Leo B. Rico, Merlijn Van Weerd and Rafe M. Brown. A spectacular new Philippine monitor lizard reveals a hidden biogeographic boundary and a novel flagship species for conservationBiol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2010.0119

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Varanus bitatawa image gallery 1

Varanus bitatawa image gallery 2

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Monitoring Individuals 1

butaan1.jpgButaan are so shy they frequently remain in a tree for more than a week after being frightened. A large male we rescued from a trap hid in a tree for 22 days before coming down!* . Most lizards do not appear traumatised by being caught and released by scientists, and resume normal activity very quickly. But we think that butaan, especially older individuals, may permanently alter their activity areas after such an encounter. Because the animals are so shy, and highly vulnerable to human disturbance, we have had to develop a range of techniques that allow us to learn about them with the absolute minimum of interference.





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