An informal review of my first Pinocchio Lizard sighting.
In September of 2016, I was lucky enough to travel to Ecuador; to experience the Amazon, Galapagos Islands and the diverse cloud forests. During this trip, we visited Mindo, an area renowned for its extensive list of bird species. But it was not the birds that would leave a lasting impression on me – rather a small, peculiar lizard.
The Lizard in the Leaves
We were introduced to this lizard when one of our guides from earlier on in the day caught up with our bus, to present to us some sort of creature he had caught and wrapped up in leaves. He said it was a sort of lizard, but not one he had seen before; rather odd it would seem, for someone who lives locally and spends much of his time looking for animal life in the forest. So he peeled back the leafy package and revealed to us this
The thing that greeted us was cute, but strange, and not a creature any of us were at all familiar with. The most striking thing on first glance was by far the huge rostral appendage the little fellow was sporting. This appendage, which looked like a large nose, resulted in one of the group jokingly naming it the ‘Pinocchio Lizard’. Later research revealed their guess was spot on – it was indeed a Pinocchio Lizard!
What Science Already Nose
Anolis proboscis, often called the Pinocchio Lizard, is a small green Anole lizard native to the tropical cloud forests of Ecuador, found specifically within the Mindo region. First described by science in 1953, researchers only had access to six male specimens, which lead them to wonder whether the rostral appendage was specific to
males, or found across the whole species. It has a very small range, and the animal itself is very small, which is probably why it has eluded us for the past few decades – sightings have been few and far between, with claims of extinction also being circulated for the years between 1960s and 2005, where no one saw the lizard. Luckily, a group of bird watchers got more than they bargained for when they spotted a bizarre looking lizard crossing the road near Mindo; sharing the photo to online forums allowed herpetologists to positively identify the lizard as a Pinocchio Lizard. Visits by scientists followed, and we now know that the extended snout is a feature specific to males. But this doesn’t reveal all about the lifestyle of this animal, and we still have much more to learn.
Face-Sword? Or Do Girls Like Big Bills?
So why do these lizards have these spectacularly long snouts?
The appendages must have a specific purpose, as they are most likely physically a drawback for the animal in day to day life. For Anolis proboscis, hitting your hooter on the dense foliage of the cloud forest is probably a daily struggle. Eating must be more difficult than it needs to be; there are few things worse than chowing down on some food whilst your snout gets in the way. Maybe there is some truth in the common name, and Pinocchio Lizards have evolved a phenotypic feature that prevents them lying to each other.
Scientifically speaking, there is no evidence to support the idea that this little reptile’s snout grows when he’s bluffing. Instead, scholars have suggested its use is as a weapon, a sort of face-sword that allows the lizards to fight and compete with each other. Further study showed that the appendage wasn’t rigid, and was bendable, which would make it pretty useless as a sword. Instead, due to fact the appendage is specific to males, it most likely plays a role in sexual selection. In other words, female Pinocchio Lizards like boys with big… snouts.
Conservation Status – A Cause For Concern?
My experience with this little lizard was by far one of the most magical of the whole trip. Not only were we incredibly lucky to see such a rarity, but the information I found when I got back to the hotel made the issues of deforestation and habitat destruction seem very real. This elusive anole lives in a small area and is highly specialised to survive there; continued habitat destruction in the Mindo area could destroy this species before we’ve had a chance to fully understand it. The IUCN has already listed A. proboscis as endangered, which is worrying for lizard enthusiasts worldwide.
The Pinocchio Lizard, and its brilliant beak, needs us to conserve as much of the Mindo forest as possible. Because who knows – if the appendage is indeed down to an evolved gene that detects the lizard’s lies, this gene could be isolated, and we could genetically engineer politicians to have it. Imagine the impact that would have on global politics!
Featured image credit; Phoebe Harris