Thursday, January 24, 2013

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A group of researchers published a paper about their discovery of a new species of Madagascar mermaid skink lizards last December. The species is the fourth forelimbs-only terrestrial tetrapods species known to science, and the first one which also has no fingers on the forelimbs.

The species was collected at Marosely, Boriziny (French: Port-Bergé), Sofia Region, Madagascar. The Sirenoscincus mobydick name is after the existing parent genus, and a sperm whale from the 1851 novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

This week, Wikinews interviewed one of the researchers, French zoologist Aurélien Miralles, about the research.

((Wikinews)) What caused your initial interest in Madagascar lizards?

Aurélien Miralles: Well, I would say that since I am a child I am fascinated by the biodiversity of tropical countries, and more especially by reptiles. I did a PhD on the evolution and systematics of skink lizards from South America. Then, I get a Humboldt grant to do a postdoc in Germany, at the Miguel Vences Lab, in order to study Malagasy skinks. Madagascar being a fabulous hotspot for reptiles (and not only for reptiles actually), it was a very nice opportunity. Professor Vences proposed me to associate our complementary fields of expertise: he is expert in herpetology for Madagascar, and I am expert in skinks lizards (family Scincidae). It was a very fruitful experience, and many other results have still to [be] published.

((WN)) How was the new species discovered?

AM: By a very funny coincidence actually. In 2010, I went to Madagascar for a long trip through the south of the island, in the semi-arid bush for collecting lizards and snakes samples. Then, during the last days, just before coming back to Germany, I have visited by coincidence the zoological collection of the University of Antananarivo. In that place, I found an old jar of ethanol with two weird little specimens previously collected by a student who didn’t realize it was something new. Being expert on skinks, I immediately recognised it was something very probably new, very different from all the other known species.

((WN)) What does “Sirenoscincus” stand for?

AM: I am not the author of the genus name Sirenoscincus. This genus name was already existing. It has been described by Sakata and Hikida (two Japanese herpetologists). “Sireno” means mermaid. “Scincus” means skinks, a group of little lizards on which I am particularly focusing my studies. So, Sirenoscinus means “mermaid skink”, in reference to [the] fact it has forelimbs but no hindlimbs.

((WN)) How deep underground do the lizards live?

AM: Hard to answer this question because nothing is known on the ecology of this species. But more reasonably, we can hypothesize, by comparison to similar species of skinks, that it is probably living just under the sand surface, [a] few centimeters deep, probably no more, or below [a] rock, leaf litter, or piece of dead wood.

((WN)) What do the lizards eat?

AM: Again, by analogy, I would say most likely small invertebrates (insects, larvae, worms etc…).

((WN)) What equipment was used during the research?

AM: Classic equipment (microscope) and also a state-of-the-art device: a micro CT-scan. It is a big device producing [a] 3D picture of the internal structure without damaging the specimen. It is actually very similar to the scanner used in human medicine, but this one is specially designed for small specimens. Otherwise, I am currently studying the DNA of this species and closely related species in order to determine its phylogenetic position compared to other species with legs, in order to learn more about the evolutionary phenomena leading to limb loss.

((WN)) There are several news sources that have a photo of the species. Is it a photo as seen in a CT-scan?

AM: No, this picture showing a whitish specimen on a black background is not a CT-scan. It is a normal photograph of the collection specimen preserved in alcohol (the one that was in the jar). You can see the complete of picture (including CT-scan 3D radiography, drawing…) in the original scientific publication.

((WN)) Do you know when the newly discovered mermaid skink species was put into the jar? Do you have its photo (of the jar)?

AM: No, I have no picture of the jar. The specimen has been collected in November 2004.

((WN)) What were the roles of the people involved in the research? What activity was most time-consuming?

AM: As first investigator, I did most of the work…and the longest part of the work was to examine closely related species in order to do comparisons…and also to check the complete bibliography related to this topic and to write the paper.
Mrs Anjeriniaina is the student who […] collected the specimen a couple of years ago.
Mrs Hipsley and Mr Müller learnt me how to use the CT-scan, and helped me concerning some point relative to internal morphology. Mr Vences helped me as supervisors. Additionally, all of them have corrected the article, and gave me many relevant advices and corrections, thus improving the quality and the reliability of the paper.

((WN)) Did you get in touch with an external entity to get the new species officially recognised?

AM: No. In zoology, it is only needed to publish the description of a new species (and to give it a name) in a scientific journal, and to designate a holotype specimen (= specimen that will be the official reference for this species), to get this new species “officially” recognised by the scientific community. That does not mean that this new species is “correct” (it might be invalidated by subsequent counter-studies), but that means that this discovery and the new name of [the] species are officially existing.

((WN)) Are there any further plans on exploring the species habitat and lifestyle?

AM: No, not really for the time being, because ecology is not our field of expertise. But other studies (including molecular studies) are currently in progress, in order to focus on the phylogenetic position and the evolution of this species.