Biodiversity in the tropical forests of South America are renowned for producing a seemingly constant parade of beautiful, bizarre creatures. Most are insects seen on night hikes in the Amazon but even lizards can turn up that baffle the mind with camouflaged coloration and odd appendages. One such tropical oddity is the Pinocchio Lizard and as you might guess, it wasn’t named for its resemblance to a particular wooden puppet when he was being honest.
This bizarre creature is also known as the Ecuadorian Horned Anole and it earns that title with a rhinoceros like protuberance that grows out of its snout. Anolis proboscis is one of the only New World lizards with something on it that looks like a horn but the weirdness doesn’t stop there. Discovered in 1953, this unique animal was only seen on a handful of occasions for the following 15 years and was presumed to have gone extinct until being rediscovered in 2005 by a group of birdwatchers who noticed one crossing a road!
What makes this tale even stranger is that this lizard only occurs in Mindo, a frequent stop for every eco-traveler to Ecuador. Fortunately, that lucky group of birders published their picture of the anole to the Internet (without realizing that they had made a major rediscovery) and in doing so, eventually knocked the proverbial socks off of every anole expert in the world. One of those people was Steve Poe, a leading expert on diurnal anoles and associate professor of biology at the University of New Mexico.
Poe organized a trip to Mindo to asses the status of this extremely rare and endangered Holy Grail of anoles shortly after seeing the photos of the mysterious lizard online. Although the lizard had gone missing for decades, as it turns out, this wasn’t due to them being a rare species. They had mostly gone unseen because the Pinocchio Lizard has very cryptic camouflage that helps it blend into the dense vegetation of the cloud forest, and no one had gone looking for them in the right places using methodologies that work.
The type of cloud forests where the Pinocchio Lizard occurs.
As it turns out, Poe and his team of field herpetologists knew how to find diurnal cloud forest anoles and showed it by locating several of them. They succeeded in their search by looking for the lizards at night instead of during the day because diurnal anoles are apparently much easier to find after dark (who would have thought?). While Ecuadorian Horned Anoles and other day anoles hide in plain sight during the day, they turn a pale, easy to spot whitish color when lit up with a head lamp at night!
So, the scientists found that the Pinocchio Lizard was live and well in Mindo but they still had no idea why it had that bizarre horned snout. Not long before Poe’s team had looked for the lizards, a group of Ecuadorian herpetologists had found another important population of Anolis proboscis around 13 kilometers from Mindo. However, neither group had been able to study the life history of these cryptic lizards so Jonathon Losos, a herpetologist from Harvard, led herpetologists from Belgium, Ecuador, and the United States on an expedition to Mindo in 2010 to shed light on the behavior of the scaled Pinocchio of the western Andes.
Using Poe’s techniques, they quickly found the lizards at night, but when they went back to those same spots during the day, the lizards appeared to be absent. It took some experimentation in searching for them to figure out how this small lizard was giving the scientists the slip but they eventually discovered what was going on. Part of the problem was the time it took for the lizards to wake up. Instead of being active at the break of dawn, the Ecuadorian Horned Anole doesn’t really move until the sun penetrates the shaded valleys where it occurs.
According to Losos, “We didn’t realize, however, is that even on the equator (Mindo’s latitude is 0 degrees, 3 minutes South), it can be very cold at 4500 feet elevation just before dawn. They didn’t move around until 9 AM”.
Once Losos and his team made that key discovery about the lizard’s behavior, they were able to study these rare denizens of the cloud forest in detail. One of the first things they discovered was why so few had been seen. While some anoles are found near the ground and are thus pretty easy to study, the Pinocchio Lizard stays up in the dense canopy of the cloud forest and does its best to hide from predators by looking like a twig and moving so slow that it also kind of acts like a twig.
Their observations confirmed the hypothesis that just as with similarly shaped Anolis species from the Caribbean, the Pinocchio Lizard has evolved to live on twigs and other narrow surfaces. However, unlike the Caribbean lizards (to which it is not closely related), it has that strange protruding “nose”. Since the female lacks the long snout and looks quite different from the male, one hypothesis is that the males evolved the long snout to attract females. This idea seems to be supported by one observation of a male moving its head from side to side as it approached a female but since that’s the only observation known, there aren’t nearly enough data to know what’s truly going on with that weird snout.
According to Losos, the horn is also quite flexible and “was seen bending when in contact with leaves and other soft objects”. Those observations quickly discounted the idea that males used their elongated snout to battle with each other for territory and/or mating reasons. However, the fact that the “horn” is flexible and can be moved up or down by the lizard turns out to be quite interesting since the lizard isn’t expected to have muscles that could move it! Losos mentions that “hydrostatic pressure might be used to change the horn’s shape, but at this point, we just don’t know”.
We might find those answers soon, though, because Ecuadorian herpetologists have succeeded in raising the Pinocchio Lizard in captivity and several sites in and near Mindo are known to harbor this bizarre cloud forest creature. To learn about how you can experience and explore the same beautiful, biodiverse cloud forests that host the Pinocchio Lizard, see the Ecuador cloud forest tours offered at DestinationEcuador.com.