New species of animals are discovered every year, often in seemingly unlikely places. Including, as we saw in 2010, menus.
It’s called Nhông cát trinh sản by the locals. A small lizard endemic to the southern portions of Viet Nam, it is commonly found on local menus throughout the Bà Rịa–Vũng Tàu Province, although the item is reported to be somewhat of an acquired taste. It’s been eaten since time immemorial, but perhaps because of its commonality it sat right underneath scientists noses until just two years ago.
Apparently, the story goes that a Vietnamese herpetologist named Ngo Van Tri noticed a number of the lizards in a restaurant’s holding tank. He was familiar with a couple of similar species that are also found throughout Viet Nam, but these particular ones caught his eye since they all seemed to be female. Normally this genus of lizard exhibits sexual dimorphism (that is, the males look different from the females), but no males could be found in the tank, nor in any other restaurant he visited.
Intrigued at this anomaly, Ngo Van Tri called an American colleague, Dr. Lee Grismer of La Sierra University, who promptly flew over. Unfortunately, by the time Grismer was able to bike up to the restaurant, the owner had gotten drunk and sold off all the lizards to hungry patrons. Undeterred, the two scientists put out a bounty on the scaly specimens and within a couple of days local children had brought them more than 60 wild-caught lizards.
Now with specimens in hand, the two scientists could really take a look at what they had found. Two discoveries came to light. Firstly, the lizards really were all female. No males were seen because they didn’t exist, meaning that the lizards reproduced through asexual parthenogenesis (a form of virgin birth only occasionally found in the vertebrate phylum). Secondly and more astoundingly this particular species had never been scientifically documented!
The lizard is now formally known as Leiolepis ngovantrii, in honor of Mr. Ngo Van Tri’s contributions to the field. It is unknown whether he enjoys the taste.