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The cold cases of two lost lizards in Ecuador have finally been cracked

Conservationists are working to make sure the rare lizards don’t disappear again

By Devin Murphy on June 19, 2021   duration

A Climbing Whorltail Iguana rediscovered by an expedition team with Tropical Herping. The lizard hadn't been seen since 1899. (Alejandro Arteaga/Tropical Herping)
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A quest to find every species of reptile living in Ecuador has unearthed two species that many scientists feared were extinct. While working on their forthcoming book, Reptiles of Ecuador, which details the ecology and natural history of the country’s approximately 500 reptilian species, Tropical Herping found two endemic lizards that they originally didn’t think would be included: the Climbing Whorltail Iguana and the Orcés Blue Whiptail

“[M]y emotions took over my mind the first time I saw each of the two species,” says Alejandro Arteaga, research director of Tropical Herping. “I could barely think, and instead was fully immersed in the moment. Yes, I was on an expedition specifically to look for these species, but the hopes of finding them were very low. After all, we had been exploring these areas several times in the past.”

The reason Arteaga didn’t think it would be likely that the two lizards would make it into the book was because both species were listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and were possibly extinct. The Orcés Blue Whiptail hadn’t been seen since 1959, and the Climbing Whorltail Iguana hadn’t been seen since 1899.  No photos of either lizard existed, only brief and incomplete descriptions in natural history books. Despite the seemingly infinitesimal chances, the Tropical Herping team still had a glimmer of hope that the lizards had been successfully evading detection in the Andes. 

Santa Isabel, where a team from Tropical Herping rediscovered the Orcés Blue Whiptail. (José Vieira/Tropical Herping)

Searching the Andes 

The Andes is a global hotspot of biodiversity. Its forests and arid shrubland have not been well-studied and they still yield surprises for conservationists, even though they are being heavily degraded. Many species that live in the Andes have very small ranges and live at very specific elevations, which can make them especially vulnerable and difficult to find. 

“There are still a lot of species to be discovered in this area,” says Lucas Bustamante, CEO and director of photography of Tropical Herping, “but with all this deforestation, I think that we are losing species even before we describe them.”

Ecuador has one of the highest deforestation rates in South America. The only country that clears more forest annually is Brazil, where forest fires that are deliberately set in the Amazon to clear forest to grow food for cattle and for cattle ranching have been dramatically increasing. 

The destruction of forests and shrubland was the reason the rediscovery of the Climbing Whorltail Iguana and Orcés Blue Whiptail were so unexpected. Teams from Tropical Herping, found both species in areas that are largely being converted to agricultural farmland and didn’t seem like ideal habitats for small lizards. 

“It was wow, super huge because we didn’t expect it, and we found both in areas that are...just remaining pieces of forest,” says Bustamante.

Dazzling lizards 

They found the Orcés Blue Whiptail in Santa Isabel and the Climbing Whorltail Iguana in Balzapamba and captured the first ever photos of both. In total, they visited Santa Isabel 10 times, finally capturing glimpses of the blue whiptail scurrying around residents’ yards in July 2018. And on the sixth visit to Balzapamba, they found a Climbing Whorltail Iguana scurrying down a tree trunk on the side of a dirt road. Arteaga climbed a tree and waited hours before he and the team were able to catch one male.

In Santa Isabel, descriptions of blue-hued lizards from members of the local community shifted Tropical Herping’s search for the Orcés Blue Whiptail away from patches of forest near the top of the Yungilla Valley to the nearby town itself. A freshly killed Orcés Blue Whiptail on the road into town told them that they were on the right track, and they soon located a lizard hiding in one woman’s backyard. 

With very little habitat and possibly only a handful Orcés Blue Whiptails left, Tropical Herping teamed up with Jocotoco, Bioparque AMARU and the Zoological Society for Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP) to create the Orcés Blue Whiptail Conservation Project. 

A male Orcés Blue Whiptail, a lizard thought possibly extinct until an expedition team with Tropical Herping found a small population in Santa Isabel, Ecuador. (José Vieira/Tropical Herping)

A head start on the future

Jocotoco’s Yunguilla Reserve, which spans a little less than 500 acres (200 hectares), could eventually be a safe home for the Orcés Blue Whiptail. The Tropical Herping team rescued eight blue whiptails from a small town where the skittish lizards were avoiding humans and predatory domestic cats in residents’ backyards. 

The lizards were hanging on in “the most threatened areas you could imagine and where survival is probably really highly insecure, and in the long term, very very low,” says Martin Schaefer, CEO of Jocotoco. 

Six surviving lizards are now living and breeding at Bioparque AMARU and will eventually be moved to Yunguilla Reserve after Jocotoco has built enclosures for them. They hope that Yunguilla will also eventually be able to create a breeding program on site. Young lizards, born in protected enclosures on the reserve, could be released to the wild when they are old enough without a significant acclimation period. 

“I'm pretty sure we can save the Blue Whiptail,” says Schaefer. “It just requires a concerted effort of captive breeding and habitat protection, and feral cat control. We put out camera traps into our reserve in order to see whether we have feral cats coming into the reserve, and we're very comforted by the presence of a Puma, which of course, takes care of the cats, [we] and didn't find a single cat.”

A female Climbing Whorltail Iguana. An expedition team with Tropical Herping rediscovered the species, which was feared extinct and hadn't been seen since 1899, after several expeditions to Balzapamba, Ecuador. (Alejandro Arteaga/Tropical Herping)

Climbing up from extinction 

The Climbing Whorltail Iguana has remained elusive since the Tropical Herping team spotted it in March. But before biologists with Tropical Herping and Jocotoco can search for and attempt to move some of the few remaining lizards into a conservation breeding program, they need to work with partners to develop a strategy to care for and rewild the iguanas. But there is so little known about the iguanas, it’s difficult to determine what they need to survive. 

“Their habits are largely unknown and establishing a breeding program without basic ecological information is risky, especially if it is uncertain how many individuals of this species remain in the wild,” says Arteaga. 

So little is known about the Climbing Whorltail Iguana, that the expedition team was surprised when the male they found changed colors. It’s bright green scales turn black when the lizard feels threatened or stressed. The behavior had not been documented in any previous descriptions of the species.

Creating and connecting more habitat  

Protected areas will be key to the long-term survival of both the Climbing Whorltail Iguana and the Orcés Blue Whiptail. Jocotoco is hoping to expand the Yungilla Reserve and restore some of its grassland, which had once been a cattle pasture, back to shrubland for the Orcés Blue Whiptail. But the reserve itself likely isn’t enough habitat for both species, which have different requirements. 

“The best survival probabilities for these species, and say any other unknown species, such as plants, such as insects...would probably be to establish different spots...that would allow species to persist in an area, and in the very best case, connect them, say, through a municipal reserve,” explains Schaefer. 

Those smaller but connected areas would protect water sources and steep slopes that can erode away from agriculture. 

“We need to find ways that we can work with smaller areas, connect them and effectively protect them, and give them some value for locals,” he says.

About the author

Devin Murphy

Devin Murphy is Re:wilds’s senior communications specialist and helps Re:wild and its partners tell stories about the work they do to protect wildlife and wildlands around the planet. Her favorite stories about conservation include fascinating and little-known species and the dedicated humans protecting them.

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