Notable for the horn that emerges from its nose, a living Modigliani’s lizard was found in 2018 in the forests of North Sumatra in Indonesia. The species was last spotted in 1891.
Nearly 130 years ago, Italian explorer Elio Modigliani arrived at a natural history museum in Genoa with a lizard he’d reportedly collected from the forests of Indonesia.
Based on Modigliani’s specimen, the striking lizard — notable for a horn that protrudes from its nose — got its official taxonomic description and name, Harpesaurus modiglianii, in 1933. But no accounts of anyone finding another such lizard were ever recorded, until now.
Wooden arts and folktales of the Bataks — indigenous people native to the region — show that lizards have a special place in the people’s mythology.
Sumatra’s indigenous Batak people had depicted a lizard with a pointy horn at the end of its snout, like a rhinoceros, in their artwork for centuries, and it holds a prominent place in their creation stories. But the lizard remained unknown to the rest of the world until Elio Modigliani stumbled across it on an expedition to the shores of Lake Toba – the submerged caldera of the Toba Supervolcano – in 1891. Modigliani preserved the specimen he’d found in alcohol, which faded its brilliant green scales and yellow spikes to mottled blue and white. It was the last member of its species any scientist would see, alive or dead, until 2018.
Although the only specimen once available marked the lizard with a blueish tint, it’s now known that the lizard’s natural color is mostly luminous green. Its camouflage and tree-dwelling behavior are similar to African mountain chameleons.
The reptile belongs to the Agamidae family of lizards, which are commonly called dragon lizards and include species such as bearded dragons. Shai Meiri, a herpetologist at Tel Aviv University, has previously shown that many dragon lizards live in small, hard-to-access areas, making the reptiles difficult to study. There are 30 agamid species that have never been seen since they were first described, and 19 species which are known from just a single specimen.
The rediscovery offers a glimmer of hope for the lizard’s conservation. Before the reptile resurfaced, no one knew where exactly Modigliani’s lizard lived, or whether it had already gone extinct. But now, we can study it, understand its conservation needs and hopefully implement conservation measures.
Let’s hope the best for this beloved and once lost creature.