That lizard was delicious– what kind was it?

November 18, 2010 • 11:21 am

by Greg Mayer

That’s more or the less the question Ngo Van Tri, a Vietnamese herpetologist, must have asked himself after having a meal like that shown below, which surely rivals anything Jerry’s had in Colombia.

Leiolepis ngovantrii. From Lee Grismer, via The Independent.

Tri contacted Lee Grismer of La Sierra University and his son Jesse Grismer, a graduate student at Villanova University, both herpetologists. They went to Vietnam and found that it was an undescribed species, which they named Leiolepis ngovantrii in Tri’s honor, in a paper (whose title oddly brings to mind the 2003 Red Sox) published this past spring in Zootaxa (abstract only).

All new species are interesting, but new ones are found all the time. What makes this one especially of note (besides being discovered on a dinner plate) is that it is a parthenogenetic species– consisting only of females, and reproducing asexually. This is a rather unusual mode of reproduction in vertebrates, but a fair number of lizards, including species in the families Teiidae, Lacertidae, Geckonidae, and (like Leiolepis) Agamidae, reproduce this way. Most parthenogenetic lizard species have arisen by hybridization between two sexual species. The Grismers, using mitochondrial DNA, have been able to identify the maternal parent species of L. ngovantrii, and also of the three other parthenogenetic species of Leiolepis, showing that parthenogenesis in this genus has arisen in the usual way for lizards. It’s also known to occur spontaneously in normally sexual species, such as the Komodo dragon, Varanus komodoensis.

The unusual method of discovery has attracted some media attention.

(And, I should mention that Lee Grismer is the author of one of the best “Animals of___” books ever: the magnificent Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California, Including Its Pacific Islands and the Islands in the Sea of Cortés, University of California Press, 2002).

Grismer, J. and L.L. Grismer. 2010. Who’s your mommy? Identifying maternal ancestors of asexual species of Leiolepis Cuvier, 1829 and the description of a new endemic species of asexual Leiolepis Cuvier, 1829 from Southern Vietnam. Zootaxa 2433:47-61.

h/t: Steve Orzack, Fresh Pond Research Institute

17 thoughts on “That lizard was delicious– what kind was it?

    1. Very interesting– I hadn’t seen this. My first guess would be spontaneous parthenogenesis, rather than hybridization. Hybrid parthenogenetic species are frequently polyploid, which this snake isn’t. The fcat that the mother’s sex chromosomes are heteromorphic, while the offspring are homomorphic, indicates the mode of asexuality includes some recombination (i.e. not purely clonal), perhaps a fusion between an egg a polar body.


  1. More fascinating biology! Birds do it, bees do it, parthenogenic lizards don’t do it!

    Hang on, I think bees don’t do it when they produce drones… what does this tell us about bee sex evolution?

    1. Actually, many parthenogenetic lizards do do it. Famously, parthenogens in the genus Cnemidophorus (now often called Aspidocelus) engage in female-female courtship and mating that is similar to male-female behavior in sexual species. I don’t think we know what the Vietnamese parthenogens do.


      1. Greg, I’d be interested in reading some of the papers which conclude that, “Most parthenogenetic lizard species have arisen by hybridization between two sexual species.” A substantial number of parthenogenic lizards of the genus Aspidoscelis live in my area, including one known as A. uniparens, and I’d like to learn more about how these ‘species’ might have arisen. Can you provide a good reference to start with?

    1. I think I know where you’re going with that one.

      In any case, the offspring couldn’t be a male as far as I know.

  2. Interesting meat, but a boring presentation. Lettuce and tomato slices? Couldn’t they throw in a roll and some barbecue sauce?

    1. OTOH, if one is going to serve lettuce and tomato, you can’t get much better than dressing it up with parthenogenetic lizards.

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