Lizards are among the most interesting and diverse species in the animal kingdom. So far, more than 6000 different kinds of lizards have been identified by reptile research specialists and they are found all over the world. Out of all those species, this particular one is very interesting. It looks like a plastic dinosaur bought from the Australian Museum store in the 90s, and yet those pale blue eyes are giving us serious White Walker vibes.
Endemic to just one place on Earth – the Southeast Asian island of Borneo – the earless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis) is the only living species in the family Lanthanotidae.
This means that, while it’s related to the ‘true monitors’, such as the brilliant blue-spotted tree monitor from the tiny island of Batanta and Australia’s mighty perentie, it’s so unique that some scientists think that it’s more closely related to the extinct Cherminotus – a prehistoric species known from 70-million-year-old fossils in Mongolia – than any living lizards.
With long, slender bodies, short limbs, and large glove-like hands, these reptiles are like armored snakes, their scales forming thick, pointed ridges all the way up to their strange milky eyes. They lack ear openings (hence the name), but can hear just fine, are they are water lovers – they’ve been known to submerge themselves for hours, only occasionally poking their nostrils above the surface for a burst of oxygen.
They have prehensile tails, which experts have suggested are used to anchor them to rocks on the river bed so they don’t float away. Earless monitor lizards are diminutive little things, typically growing to just 20 cm from nose to tail (reportedly a particular individual at New York’s Bronx Zoo in the 1960s and 70s grew to 51 cm long, although he was morbidity obese).
They’re nocturnal, shy, and generally pretty docile, but they can give you a nasty bite if you agitate them. It’s been reported that the species is very rare, although they can be hard to identify in the wilds of Borneo, which means the population could be doing better than we think.
But then there’s the poaching. Like the poor pangolin, the earless monitor lizard has become something of a holy grail for wildlife traffickers, favored by collectors in Japan, Ukraine, France, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
Pairs can go for as much as €5,000 (approx. AU$8,110) despite the fact that they are protected in Indonesia and trafficking carries a five-year jail sentence.
The big problem is that the species is so little-studied, we don’t know how much all of this poaching is actually affecting the wild population, and just how much trouble these amazing little lizards are in.
But to leave you on a more positive note, let’s celebrate that sweet derpy face: