Sunday 31 May 2009

100th post special: Darwinius masillae, or Ida

Darwinius masillae Franzen et al., 2009
Notharctidae; Primates; Mammalia; Chordata

Above photograph:
Cast of the original specimen in Natural History Museum
May 2009

Above illustration:
Pen drawing of the cast
May 2009

As my humble contribution to the Ida carnival, I thought I’d offer two original illustrations and a documentary review, and also a summary about Ida, her provenance, her significance and some other thoughts. You may have heard much of this before, so I apologise in advance.

Ida is the name given to the first, and so far only, specimen of the notharctid primate Darwinius masillae. Obviously, her generic name comes from the man who celebrated his 200th birthday posthumously earlier this year, Mr. Charles Robert Darwin. It is no surprise, then, that the species was formally described this year of all years. The ‘masillae’ epithet is more obscure and less obvious. This relates to its origins: it was found some 25 years ago by an anonymous collector in the Messel pits in Germany. The name is Latinised, but instead of ending in the more usual ‘-ensis’, which normally ends names named after locations (i.e. canadensis, mississippiensis, sinensis), it ends in the genitive ending usually reserved for female people, although is sometimes used for place names (i.e. novaehollandiae, novaeangliae, terraesanctae).

The Messel pits are renowned for their status as a Lagerstätte. Roughly translated as ‘place of storage’, Lagerstätten are known for yielding truly well-preserved fossils. As well as Messel, there is Solnhofen, also in Germany, with perfectly preserved Pterodactylus, Rhamphorhynchus, Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx specimens (Solnhofen scene depicted here). The Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Canada, is another example of a Lagerstätte from much earlier (Cambrian period), and the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, California, much more recent (Pleistocene epoch). All share in common a veritable bonanza of fossils not found anywhere else, or in such quantities or of such quality. Messel itself contains beautifully preserved examples of, for example, insects, fish, amphibians, snakes, birds, bats, primitive horses, and of course, primates. The reason for such a high diversity of life forms is the basis behind why Lagerstätten exist. In Messel, a crater formed by geophysical forces from the mantle, deep under the crust. The crater filled with water and became a deep lake mostly devoid of life. This is because the bottom of the lake was still exposed to the same geophysical forces that created the crater in the first place, but this time in the form of gases such as carbon dioxide. From time to time, big ‘burps’ of gas would escape from the vents at the lake bottom, and to some extent the lake margins, releasing large amounts of gases into the lake environment. This is key to explaining how Ida might have died.

Ida (pronounced ‘ee-da’, not ‘eye-da’, as I was saying it for a while!) was female and approximately 9 months old when she died. The evidence for both of these factors comes from the skeleton itself, which is 95% complete: a lack of a baculum (penis bone, or os penis) indicates it is not male; hidden teeth high up in the jaw which have yet to emerge indicate she is not fully grown. The preserved skeleton also reveals a pathology which most likely contributed to her death. The right metacarpals (wrist bones) are fused and form a risen lump. This indicates that the bones broke early in Ida’s life, possibly from a fall from a tree. Although Ida survived long enough for the bones to heal, she would have had a hard life to her conspecifics; her tree-climbing abilities would have been greatly impaired and probably couldn’t have found food in the usual way. This resorted Ida to foraging for fallen fruit, foliage and the occasional invertebrate on the ground. She would have been drawn to the lake for a drink, and may have fallen prey to the toxic gases burping out of the muddy margins. Ida was knocked out by the sudden intake of carbon dioxide, and fell in the lake, indisputably drowning. Her lifeless body found itself in its famous pose as it hit the bed.

I mentioned earlier that Ida is a notharctid primate, but what does that mean exactly? The notharctids are a family of extinct primates, placed in the infraorder Adapiformes. It has remained unclear as to where exactly within the Primates the Adapiformes and hence the Notharctidae belong. Much of the focus of the original description (referenced and linked at the end of this post) and the documentary reviewed shortly was on the phylogenetic placement of Darwinius related to two suborders of Primates: the prosimians (lemurs, lorises and their kin), and the anthropoids (monkeys and apes, including humans, which are apes of course). Neither are true monophyletic groups: the prosimians also include the tarsiers, which are actually on the same ‘branch’ as humans, the haplorhines. The original paper uses the more correct terms Strepsirhini and Haplorhini to indicate the true groupings. It occurs to me that the Adapiformes make up a third group.

On Tuesday 26th May, Britain was hit by a double dose of Ida-goodness. I already knew that the documentary Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestors: The Link was scheduled for 9 pm on BBC1, but the other piece of news was bizarrely unknown to me. The Natural History Museum, the place where I work and have studied and worked for the past few years, was to host the REAL Ida specimen for just a few hours, of course, as luck would not have it, on a day I had chosen to take off for my sister’s birthday, dammit. I probably wouldn’t have had authority to see her anyway, as the event was restricted to the press, certain scientists and celebrities, including the revered Sir David Attenborough, who narrated and wrote the script for that night’s documentary. I’m a humble library shelving assistant, and have few, if any, links to the Palaeontology Department, as yet. I saw this on the lunchtime news, and was feeling an odd mixture of pride for my institution, and jealousy for not being there. Oh I’ve met Sir Dave already, twice in fact, so it’s not that. The news was announced, however, that a cast has been presented to the Museum that will be on display from the following day. So naturally, before I started my shift at work I gave Ida’s body double a visit. Oh my, I was blown away by her beauty, although it was a cast. From seeing her on TV the previous night, I expected her to be twice the size, but as with a lot of celebrities, she looked a lot smaller in person.

So onto my review. An overdramatic introduction (this truly was overdramatic... Jens Franzen was quoted as stating that the findings would be “just like an asteroid hitting the Earth”) led into the story of the fossil’s discovery by Jørn Hurum at a German fossil fair in 2006. The counterpart was not mentioned (the other half of the specimen which shows the imprints of the bones, rather than risen ones). An excited Hurum was shown seeing the fossil for the first time when he was filmed opening the crate containing Ida. Radiographic studies, including x-rays (which can be seen in the original paper), proved that the specimen, unlike Piltdown Man, is not a hoax. A quick overview of the skeletal features follows, focusing on the presence of nails on the digits. Three of the authors of the paper, Holly Smith, Jens Franzen and Philip Gingerich were introduced.

Deciphering the fossil’s age was due to the method of preservation. Before being found by Hurum and purchased by the Oslo Natural History Museum, somebody (conveniently anonymously) covered the front face of the fossil with a clear resin. This is, apparently, only done to fossils found at Messel; therefore Ida’s age could be pinpointed to approximately 47 million years old. Other Messel fossils were shown, including Propalaeotherium and Eurotamandua. These fossils date from the Eocene epoch, the second of the Cenozoic epochs, after the relatively ‘dead’ Palaeocene. This was the time when the first true carnivores (the miacids), horses, bats (like Palaeochiropteryx), whales (like Basilosaurus, but obviously not in Messel) and primates were evolving. No mention is made of why the lake was special in that the specimens were so perfectly preserved, of course due to the anoxic mud containing very little oxygen and thus few aerobic bacteria to break down the body. The black fuzz surrounding Ida’s body was not mentioned apart from stating that it is furry; it is not only fur, but also a bacterial slime, which I mentioned to interested passers by at the Museum.

The skeleton was scrutinised further by the quartet: ecological conclusions were being drawn, such as the relatively short limbs indicated an arboreal (tree-climbing) nature, as well as the fact that Darwinius would have been heavily muscular (try imagining a ripped Ida with huge pecs and abs – quite a laugh). The teeth were examined by Holly Smith, the dental anthropologist on the team. Externally they appear to be ‘all-purpose’, suggesting she would eat a variety of foods, but especially vegetation. This was confirmed by examination of the gut contents by Hurum and Franzen, having found leaves and seeds. A detailed CT scan was carried out in the Senckenberg Museum where Franzen is based, from which they were able to create a 3-D image of Ida’s skeleton. On this note, it is incredible that not a single whole animal reconstruction was shown. It took me half an hour to draw one (see end of this post), and I would’ve done it for free, so it can’t be to do with budget. A CGI reconstruction of more than just bones would’ve been greatly appreciated, if not just by me then by all viewers of the documentary who haven’t seen Darwinius reconstructed. This isn’t Night at the Museum, for crying out loud!

Comparisons were made between Ida and a 6 to 9 year old child (incidentally, this confused a few people I met at the Museum when I was answering casual questions – they had read that Ida was 9 months old, but had heard on the documentary that she was 6 years old, in comparative terms), and we see Ida’s namesake, Hurum’s daughter. There is a neat cut-scene where we see the human Ida playing and the notharctid Ida is superimposed over her, as they are in similar positions.

From this point onwards, the documentary dwells heavily on the phylogenetic placement of Ida in comparison to the prosimians and the anthropoids. My favourite part of the documentary follows: an examination of a slow loris (Nycticebus sp.) to show two of the salient features of most prosimians. Most primates have nails instead of claws (some notable exceptions include the needle-clawed galagos [Euoticus spp.] and the aye-aye [Daubentonia madagascariensis]), but a claw is present on the second digit of the hind foot (the toe next to the big toe). This is variously known as the grooming claw or the toilet claw (I prefer the latter term). It is used, fairly obviously, for grooming. The slow loris has a nice example of a toilet claw. The other feature which prosimians like lorises have is the tooth comb. This is made of the lower incisors and canines squished close together to form a comb-like structure, also used in grooming. The loris’ features are then contrasted with Ida’s, who lacks both the toilet claw and the tooth comb.

This immediately suggests that Ida is NOT a prosimian/strepsirhine. According to the documentary, this automatically places Ida on the anthropoid branch. Just because something does not belong in one category, it does not necessarily mean it has to belong in the other. This way of thinking has been criticised heavily by my fellow bloggers and other scientists, so I won’t add too much to that. Comparisons were then inevitably made to anthropoids, but why start and end with the chimpanzee? Obviously their hands and feet look similar, but doesn’t it make sense to look at an anthropoid with a longer fossil record? Clearly, they were trying to oversell the point that Ida is closer to apes than to lemurs.

In reference to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection, Attenborough can be heard saying that there are “billions of species” on the planet. Barely a million have been described, there’s a long way to a billion, let alone ‘billions’. The dependence on the term ‘missing link’ is clear, so of course the most famous link, Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis specimen discovered in 1974, was featured. It was a nice opportunity, however, to see how Lucy’s reconstructed pelvis compares with bipedal primates, i.e. humans, and quadrupeds, like the chimpanzee.

The injury to the metacarpals was featured, and it was proposed that Ida’s mother may have dropped her. Ida’s death was mentioned in as much detail as I have already gone into. While watching though, I was reminded of how Archaeopteryx lithographica, of which a handful of specimens (such a strange term, how can you have a handful of giant slabs of limestone?) are known, had probably died of the same fate a hundred million years before. This then provoked another thought: other specimens of Darwinius may exist out there, but are lying in “some rich guy’s basement”, to use Hurum’s words. With any luck, Ida’s worldwide media exposure (family in a village in Cyprus have even heard) might motivate private collectors to sell their specimens to museums, obviously for a hugely elevated price which no museum can afford on today’s budgets.

The final nail in the coffin for me in this documentary was the end to the constant search for a trait to link Ida with the anthropoids, and by extension, to us. The authors noticed that the talus bone in the animal’s heel is of a similar shape to those of humans, who walk bipedally. Did it not occur to them that this could be a form of convergent evolution? Just like the opposable thumb and big toe which likens them to chimpanzees, the talus’ shape could have nothing to do with walking upright, or shared ancestry with us. Of course, it may still be true, but not enough analysis has been carried out. In the last minute of the documentary, Ida is declared as “part of our history” and that’s that. End of story. Had this documentary been made much later, as in not yet, the views of other scientists would have made an appearance and made it a much less biased argument. The documentary was, however, drawing upon the points made in the paper itself, which is also full of holes.

You can tell by the length of my review that this was a long documentary, but there was much repetition of ideas. Friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed the programme with have agreed that it could have easily been half as long with still as much detail. Despite this, the documentary is still worth watching, if only for the incredible footage of a sedated slow loris (even slower than usual!) being examined at Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina.

I leave you with my reconstruction of Ida. I based her on living lemurs and of course on the cast of the skeleton I have illustrated earlier.

Graphite pencil illustration
May 2009

Franzen, J. L., P. D. Gingerich, J. Habersetzer, J. H. Hurum; W. von Koenigswald & B. H. Smith (2009). Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology. In: PLoS One 4(5), 27 pp. (link to PDF here)

Friday 29 May 2009

Just Married

And now for something completely different... a piece of semi-biographical creative writing from a few years ago. It's called Just Married, and it's about the story of a balloon's life. Yes, really. Have you ever found a helium balloon and wondered how far it had travelled to get there? Similarly, have you ever let one go and wondered where it ended up. Outer space? Unlikely. The following account gives a humorous insight into the thoughts and feelings of a not-so-simple rubber balloon.

Just Married

I tell you this story from my death bed. I am on my last legs, and have only a few moments left to live. My life has been a fulfilled one, and I pleasure in telling it to you.

My life began in a latex factory; I hear my ancestors were made from latex from a Malaysian rubber tree, so I might have been too. I always wanted to go home and see the forests from which almost my entire body was made.

The first thing I remember was emerging from the machine that made me and my fellows. I knew I was special, even from that early age, although for some bizarre reason, I had a fear of pins or anything sharp. I didn’t know at that time why I had such an inexplicable fear, but I was soon to find out. I was on the conveyor belt to the shaping room, and I saw, through a crack in the wall, the destroying room. I have no desire to ever see again what I saw that day. Balloons being jabbed and squeezed till they scream in agony with what humans call a “pop”. I can never understand why the word for a method of torture is exactly the same as that for a genre of music.

Anyway, back to my story, I emerged from the shaping room a brand new balloon, made from 45% recycled rubber and 55% Malaysian latex – I was informed through the grape-vine – so now I moved along to the printing room. Since I was naturally coloured, my choice of patterns was fairly limited, but I always hoped to go to a party or wedding. As luck would have it, I saw the words “Just Married” stuck to a machine I was heading to! Would I be destined to be filled with helium and help celebrate the union of two people? As the words and design were bonded to my newly set body, I felt that I could do anything, go anywhere.

And anywhere was where I went. I don’t know where I was sent, but when my four hour ride ended, I was unpackaged and connected to a helium canister. I cannot accurately describe the feeling of being pumped up with pure He, but if you imagine the feeling of take off in a plane then you’re half way there (so I’m told). The filling of my body with almost weightless gas was like the filling of your mind by endless bliss. And before you ask, no, my voice did not go all high-pitched and squeaky.

I was fastened and tied to a string with my buddies, and although they were gold rather than ivory in colour, we shared so much in common. We all desired to be wedding decorations, and we all longed to go back to where we came from. Being made of plastic, as you can tell, does not necessarily infer a lack of intelligence. My theory for the balloon race’s great intelligence is that we have inherited our I.Q. partly from our arbour parentage, and from the amalgamation of recycled rubber we have accumulated bits of the feelings and memories of our ancestral balloons, erasers, and other such rubber-related items. Personally, I believe I am composed mostly of old balloons, most of whom were led to their deaths by a sharp object, hence my incomprehensible fear of pins.

We were brought to the wedding hall, a rather exquisite looking ballroom decorated quite basically in the colours of ivory and gold. Our concerns were that we were the only latex-made commodities in the hall; we were surrounded by lifeless wood. As living trees they are our most respected life forms, but when converted to beams and floorboards, and varnished and painted, they lose all signs of life, rather like a stupid human. The plaster and metal do not help much to liven up the place, however much the humans try to cover it with lacquer, varnish, paint and paper, it will always remain as dead as death itself. The despair in the air juxtaposes the mood that will soon overcome this hall in just under four hours, one of happiness (and faux happiness) for the happy couple, and drunken dances on the disco dance floor to “an eclectic variety of 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and modern music,” according to the day-glo posters in the entrance to the hall, which I could just make out in my line of sight whenever the doors opened. The advertisement also read “Hired for weddings, patries, and funerals.” They could only mean “parties”, I assume.

I watched the rest of the party being set up, plates, knives, forks (panic attack!), glasses, napkins, and the rest, being put in place on the dozen or so tables. I was quickly starting to get bored of this situation, being tied to a block of wood shaped like a human seat. How I longed for a lift out the door, past the poorly-spelled pink posters to the outside world, where I would drift happily away. No doubt, the first guests would be arriving any minute now. Yes, the first family came through the double doors, a man and his wife, with three children. The youngest was having trouble standing on his feet, no, he wasn’t drunk; he was under two years old. The two twin girls went with their parents to the table marked with a number 12, furthest away from the bride and groom’s table, I guess they were only distantly, if at all, related to the couple, and had to travel far, getting here embarrassingly early.

I think my new found dream was about to come true. The little brat with no sense of balance was attracted to big, round, shiny objects, not necessarily only those made of rubber; I see he was fascinated by the father of the bride’s head, who was as bald as a bowling ball. I saw my ticket to freedom waddling towards me, every so often stopping to sit down on the dance floor, and to pick his nose. By the time the hall started filling up I was getting impatient, desperate for freedom and liberty. Here he came; he was waddling and toddling ever so slowly, hurry up! But, oh no, the mother comes to his rescue. Cue screaming child over the sounds of the B-52s “Love shack”, and my dreams shattered, for a little while anyway. A nerdy-looking man with glasses and a blue pinstripe suit untied one of my companions and was going to hand it to a small female child who was tugging at his trouser leg, saying in a spoilt-sounding voice “I want that balloon, no, not that one, that one!” As the girl screamed the final words of her tantrum, she stamped on her father’s foot and he let go of my companion for the day. I could hear her cries of joy as she drifted upwards, until a 6’6” gangly-looking man in a black suit and red tie plucked her from the sky and tied her crudely to the chair. “Give me my balloon!” the girl screamed once again. The girl’s father untied me from the block of wood, and the girl subsequently screamed gleefully, although in an unnaturally high-pitched frequency, which made her already nervous father let go of me. I was on my way up, and there were no tall people in sight. I was on my way up, and I could see an open window. I was on my way up, and I could still hear my companion’s wailing.

I was on my way up, but I got trapped, stuck on the ceiling. I was getting queasy from the view. I saw the girl’s father shouting towards the tall guy, who was grabbing a chair and putting it directly beneath me. Was I to be returned to my original post? If I was capable of independent movement, I would direct myself to the window for my great escape. But alas, my entire body is made of rubber, and I have no muscles with which to move. I was grabbed, and given to the girl. The girl tied my string around her belt, and I was destined to be forever in her company.

The families began to leave the hall as the music died down, less people “danced”, and my adoptive family, consisting of Mr. Nerd, his wife, who looked like a taller version of her daughter, but with blonde hair, and of course, my foster-parent. I finally saw the outside world as they left the hall and walked to their car. I disliked the atmosphere of the car even more than that of the hall. It smelled strongly of smoke, and quite frankly, their taste in music was ridiculously absurd, as proven by their tape of country-western songs. Thankfully the journey was short.

At home, the girl untied my string and left me to float to her ceiling. I had to watch her sleeping all night, until the following morning, a Sunday if I recall, she went out to play and took me with her. All I saw of her garden at the time was a tree, a wonderful living tree, although not for long.

I was off! She let go of me and started singing, her voice fading quieter and quieter as I got higher and higher. I was over the suburban streets and houses, seeing many trees. I was so high I could no longer make out individual trees or houses, they all blurred into one. I was gaining velocity due to the wind pushing me forwards and upwards. I was getting light-headed, I was wondering if my helium supply would run out any time soon. But the sense of worry was soon ignored. I was ecstatic. I was free! I passed a river or two, and a huge botanical garden, filled with very tall trees of all types. I was filled with awe; I probably saw a Malaysian rubber tree, albeit a tiny little dot from my position in the firmament. I was floating all day, gaining new heights. I almost collided with a flock of starlings; I was worried since their beaks looked so sharp!

It was getting dark, almost nightfall. I could sense that I wasn’t getting any higher, but still remaining at the same altitude. Aeroplanes looked bigger than before, but it was colder up here. I had images of flying humans, either with wings attached, or filled with helium like myself, which amused me; I doubt they’d survive, judging by the behaviour I witnessed the night before. At last it was dark, and I could no longer see my view, but I felt like the luckiest balloon ever to have lived. Most are destined to die a horrible death, but not me.

I drifted for days, over fields and forests, cities and cemeteries, plains and peaks. I must have floated across almost the entire country. I couldn’t help noticing, however, that I seemed to be dropping in altitude. I often got wet as the summer rains plummeted from the clouds now above me. During one big storm, and I mean big, I fell quite a way down until I was at eye-level with the trees of parks and gardens. Yes, we have an eye, you just can’t see it. The storm subsided, and the weather heated up again to almost melting temperatures. I was soon dry, and I slowly descended and descended, my senescent body being unable to compete with gravity. I had a good life, who could have wished to be set free and fly across such varied landscapes. The last few days were memorable; I landed in a vegetable patch, mostly full of mint. I ended up smelling like a chewing gum wrapper. The next morning, I was greeted by a human, but I was blind by then and couldn’t describe them to you. They brought me into a warm building, and I was tied to a lampshade. Here I stay, I have been here almost a week, but now I feel, yes, could it be? I feel myself being untied. I’m taken to the next room, and my vision has come back! Oh the colours and shapes I had missed! The human who was standing above me has her foot raised in the air and her knee bent. What is this, this seems like a quaint human tradition I hadn’t encountered before. Maybe they’re honouring my bravery? No, oh what’s this pressure? I’ve been turned over; oh my eye feels like it’s about to pop out. Oh no, POP!

Thursday 21 May 2009

It's Puzzle Time!

It's time to test your tetrapod ID skills as well as your lateral thinking. Below are 26 'riddles': each represents one of the pictures at the end of this post. The riddles are numbered 1 to 26; simply decipher them and match them to a photo (each is labelled with a letter, the letter does not give a clue as to the first letter of the animal's name - most of the time!!). Send in your answers to the riddles and the matching letter (i.e. 1. duck = A) to me at: subhumanfreaks AT hotmail DOT com. Bonus points will be given to anyone who can identify the most species/genera, so have a guess if you can. The winner (the participant who gets the most correct answers including bonus points) will receive a personalised drawing of whichever tetrapod(s) they like. I will end this competition on the 31st May, so you have 10 days to get entering. Good luck!!

  1. A baker’s product in two varieties: one is savoury and can be buttered; the other is sweet. Change the first letter of this food to reveal the name of a coastal bird.
  2. A bird that knows when a dog is happy.
  3. A chess piece that’s also a bird.
  4. A nocturnal container for jam.
  5. A famous wizard of times gone by.
  6. A gulp, the action that brings food down the oesophagus.
  7. A piece of cutlery this bird has for a beak.
  8. A piece of thin card half-encrusted with corundum crystals with an abrasive function is almost this bird’s name; simply change one of the vowels.
  9. A pinch on the bum, or a large waterfowl?
  10. A type of carpet, a slang term for intercourse, or a seabird.
  11. Crooner Mr. White, and a banded decorative form of quartz.
  12. Extreme fear of needle?
  13. Five + five ruins.
  14. Mythical beast that can kill with its stare.
  15. One of a pair of fantastic knockers.
  16. One tin + one tin.
  17. One way of cooking an egg, and also another. The first involves water but no oil, the second requires a lot of time.
  18. Pelvis + vowel + bread + vowel + Quixote or Juan.
  19. Remove the bee from Snoopy’s breed.
  20. Replace one vowel in the name for a child with an unknown father.
  21. Reptile that looks after a computer screen.
  22. Sounds like a dinosaur named after Mr. Fawlty.
  23. Take the ‘R’ from something you rue, a small white heron have you.
  24. The youngest of the princes, and his grandmother’s official initials.
  25. There was once one in a Pyrus, but you might want to ask Steve Coogan’s famous character instead.
  26. We have been spotted by the picture-taking device.


Sunday 17 May 2009

Quartet of Cypriot Lizards

Despite hours of searching in the favourite haunts of snakes, I saw not one serpent in my sixteen days in Cyprus. Lizards were a-plenty, however, but making up four species:

Laudakia stellio cypriaca (Daan, 1967)
Agamidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

adult, at Alagadi (N35°19.923 E33°28.692), April 2009

adult, at Bellapais Abbey (N35°18.393 E33°21.359), April 2009

juvenile, at Bellapais Abbey, October 2008

Looking somewhat like a bearded dragon (Pogona spp.), a popular pet, the (starred) agama is found in some Greek Islands of the Aegean Sea, Cyprus, Turkey, northern Egypt and the Near East as far as Iraq. They are the largest lizards to be found on Cyprus, the individual in the first photo was fully grown, at over 30 cm in length. Males and females are hard to tell apart, but juveniles are more distinctly patterned compared to the adults.

Schreiber’s fringe-toed lizard
Acanthodactylus schreiberi schreiberi (Boulenger, 1878)
Lacertidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

adult, at Gönyeli (N35°14.069 E33°18.101), April 2009

juvenile, at Alagadi, April 2009

Fringe-toed lizards are a group of sand-loving reptiles from parts of Europe and north Africa; the fringe that gives them their vernacular name evidently helps them scuttle on hot, loose sands. I observed this species in a few sandy locations such as Turtle Beach at Alagadi, and sand dunes near the lake at Gönyeli. Juveniles are easy to identify, as among the Cypriot lizards, only they can be as brightly-marked, with longitudinal black and white stripes, and even a red tail. The red coloration and stripes fade and turn to spots as the lizard matures, as can be seen in the first photo. The species is not endemic to Cyprus, but is also found in Turkey and the Near East.

Troodos lizard
Phoenicolacerta troodica (Werner, 1936)
Lacertidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata

adult female, at Bellapais Abbey, possibly gravid with eggs

adult male, at Kyrenia, (N35°20.570 E33°15.251)

adult male and female, at Kyrenia

Since blogging about this species the last time I went to Cyprus, I have seen many more individuals of the endemic Troodos lizard in many more locations than I had previously. Note the beautifully coloured male with his blue flank spots, and the red-backed female who definitely looks gravid/pregnant (or should that be eggnant?)

Snake-eyed lizard
Ophisops elegans elegans Ménétries, 1832
Lacertidae; Squamata; Sauropsida; Chordata
Geçitköy (N35°20 E33°04)
April 2009

It wasn’t until I arrived back home that I realised that I had seen several individuals of this species, as I thought they were Acanthodactylus schreiberi. They can be told by their rather snake-like face and heavily-keeled scales. This individual was posing nicely on a rock by the side of the road as we approached the reservoir, more on which to follow in a later post.