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ScienceShot: New Giant Lizard Identified

Stretching 2 meters long from snout to tail and weighing 10 kilograms, the giant monitor lizard Varanus bitatawa shouldn't be hard to miss. But this relative of the Komodo dragon has been surprisingly adept at hiding from curious herpetologists. For 10 years, field researchers in the rainforests of the northern Philippines saw trunks raked by powerful claws and heard local tribes' accounts of the "bitatawa," a lizard whose meat was tastier than that of the well-documented Gray's monitor lizard (Varanus olivaceus). But it wasn't until the summer of 2009, when a pair of graduate students wheedled an adult specimen from hunters, that researchers could count its scales, examine its color pattern, and compare its DNA with that of its relatives. These and other characteristics pin the monster as a new species, the researchers report online tomorrow in Biology Letters. It turns out V. bitatawa's popularity as a protein source among local Agta and Ilongot tribespeople is likely due to its preference for the pineapple-like pandanas fruit, which, according to the natives, sweetens the meat.