The Komodo At The End Of The Fork

This Spring, a giant monitor lizard was discovered in the Phillipines. It is beautiful, flecked with both green and gold scales. Like its close cousin, the komodo dragon, it is huge — 6 feet long and 22 lbs — and has a double penis. Unlike the komodo, it is entirely vegetarian, peacefully stalking fruit in the treetops.

We’ll call it by its scientific name, Varanus bitatawa, because its English name, the Northern Sierra Madre Forest monitor lizard, is kind of a mouthful. That a six-foot golden lizard could remain hidden to science for so long is surprising, but the reasons fit a few familiar patterns.

1. V. bitatawa is arboreal, spending no more than 20 minutes a day on the ground. If you want to find a new species, look up or look down. The forest canopy and the deep ocean are the undiscovered continents, the vertical frontiers of biology, and it makes sense that most new terrestrial animals are found above us, where it hurts our necks to look. In fact, a host of new creatures were recently discovered in the treetops of Papua New Guinea, including the world’s smallest wallaby and a “pinocchio” frog with an inflatable nose. It is amazing how many big, obvious things can be obscured in the mess of capillaries at the ends of the Earth’s blood.

2. But when I said it was “discovered” this Spring, I lied. It was “discovered” by science recently, but it was known to natives for countless generations, as a delicious meal. In fact, it was a picture of locals posing with their lizard lunch, taken in 2001, that prompted the expedition to find it. And this is the larger truth: If it’s out there, we’ve probably eaten it. If not us, something else. Hunger is the great explorer. It causes us to try poisonous plants and strangely-colored bugs, and learn about our environment that way. Knowing what to eat, and what not to eat, is the most practical application of biology. People who know how to hunt and forage have a far more intimate knowledge of their surroundings, and often — but not always — a greater understanding of their workings. So epicureanism — food appreciation and adventurism — isn’t too far from the science of biology, an expedition on the dinner table. Hunger makes you a keen observer. Hunger makes you a scientist. If you want to find a new species of rodent, follow a hawk. If you want to find new mushrooms, follow a wild pig. I think we will soon recognize that the quickest path to finding out the secrets of the Earth is the oldest and most direct. To find the hidden creatures in a forest, ask the locals what’s on the menu.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

One response to “The Komodo At The End Of The Fork

  • Neanderthals in the Mist « The Quantum Biologist

    […] I’ve written before about the curious fact that we tend to consume things before we “discover” them. Hunters are the original zoologists. But the bushmeat crisis has reached epidemic levels, with half of all primate species on Earth going extinct. Habitat destruction plays a part, but the loss of the world’s apes and monkeys is most directly impacted by poaching. In fact, the two threats play into one another: roads built for loggers give hunters greater access to the forest, and chimpanzee ends up on the menu. Apes may only make up 1% of the world bushmeat trade, but when your species’ entire population is as small as a few thousand, as in the case of the Mountain Gorilla, losing even a dozen males can be devastating. Meanwhile, both New and Old World Monkeys are being picked off with rifles without any concern for their imminent extinction. […]

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