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.