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Academy Specimens Lead to Astounding Discovery

Herpetology Specimen

May 8, 2012

The Academy’s behind-the-scenes collections hold many surprises—but two researchers from Penn State University found much more than they were expecting when they inspected lizard specimens from the Academy’s Herpetology Collection and several other natural history collections around the world.

With her advisor, Professor of Biology Dr. Blair Hedges, undergraduate Caitlin Conn began an honors thesis on the diversity of Caribbean skinks (small, fast-moving lizards with short legs and long tails). The two sent out samples for genetic analysis, but they got back some startling results—the samples, which they thought belonged to one species of skink, showed different genetic readings.

Since researchers previously had identified only six species of skink living on the Caribbean islands, these results raised eyebrows, prompting Conn and Hedges to conduct additional research in natural history collections around the world. After they gathered about 800 preserved skink specimens, including some from the Academy, they classified the species through scale counts and shapes, coloration, size, and genetic readings. Their results reveal a variety of sizes of never-before-known species—some which had evolved to climb and others that were more likely to burrow. 

In total, they found 24 new species and nine species previously named but considered invalid—33 new species in the Caribbean overall. The publishing of their discovery in early May in the journal Zootaxa marks the first time since the 1800s that this many reptiles have been added to a species list at one time.

These exciting results are tempered by the fact that all of the new species are vulnerable, threatened, or endangered, and 16 are likely extinct. The culprit, the Indian mongoose, was introduced in 1872 to the islands in an effort to control rats, but it also devoured many of the skinks living there. Dr. Hedges explained to The New York Times that the discovery indicates the importance of species classification to wildlife conservation.

For a limited time during our Bicentennial, Academy scientists will open our cabinets and drawers to show you the amazing, the spectacular, and the downright unusual items in our collections. Every month we will showcase a different collection­­—and in July, we’ll open the Herpetology Collection from which scientists borrowed specimens for this important study. For visitors ages 8 and up, these one-of-a-kind tours take place at the Academy Thursdays through Mondays at 11 a.m. Purchase tickets at our front desk on the day of the tour ($5 per person for members/$7.50 for nonmembers).

In addition to the preserved skink specimens in the Herpetology Collection, the Academy’s Live Animal Center has two species of live skinks: a blue-tongued skink common in north and east Australia and Tasmania and a Solomon Island skink, common on the small group of islands in the Pacific Ocean and some areas of Papua New Guinea. These animals serve as regular animal ambassadors in museum programs. 

Read more about this discovery in The New York Times, and access the Zootaxa abstract.