“Extinct” Pinocchio Lizard Found in Ecuador

It’s no lie—scientists have spotted a lizard with a nose like Pinocchio in an Ecuadorian cloud forest. What’s more, the long-nosed reptile was thought extinct, having been seen only a few times in the past 15 years.

“It’s hard to describe the feelings of finding this lizard. Finding the Pinocchio anole was like discovering a secret, a deeply held secret. We conceived it for years to be a mythological creature,” Alejandro Arteaga, a photographer and one of the lizard’s spotters, said in a statement.

pinocchio lizard picture
The lizard’s superschnoz on display. Photograph by Alejandro Arteaga, tropicalherping.com

Not surprisingly, the defining feature of the Pinocchio lizard—properly named Anolis proboscis, or the horned anole—is the male’s long protrusion on the end of its nose. Far from being a sturdy, rigid structure, researchers have found that the horn is actually quite flexible. (See a picture of a Pinocchio frog found in Indonesia.)

Despite its peculiar appearance, the reptile wasn’t formally described by scientists until 1953. They managed to save only six specimens, all of which were male. It was spotted several times in the next few years, all near the town of Mindo, Ecuador (map), and then the species seemed to vanish.

Watch a video of the Pinocchio lizard.

“For 40 years, no one saw it. At that point, we thought the species had gone extinct,” said Jonathan Losos, an evolutionary biologist and herpetologist at Harvard University who has studied the animal.

Why Did the Lizard Cross the Road?

Then, in 2005, a group of bird-watchers near Mindo spotted a strange-looking lizard crossing the road. One of them shared a picture when they got back home, and herpetologists realized that the Pinocchio lizard was still alive and well. (Also see Photos: Bubble-nest Frog, Other ‘Extinct’ Species Found.”)

pinocchio lizard picture
Only the males have such long noses. Photograph by Alejandro Arteaga, tropicalherping.com

Several teams journeyed to this area of Ecuador to get a closer look. One team, led by Steve Poe, a researcher at the University of New Mexico and an expert at finding hard-to-spot lizards, found that the anoles were actually quite easy to find—if you knew where to look.

Because horned anoles sleep at the end of branches, turning a pale white color as they snooze, Poe’s team discovered that they were easily spotted at night with headlamps or flashlights. The researchers identified several females, none of which had a horn. What the anoles did during the day, however, remained a mystery.

Losos—also a member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration—arrived in Ecuador in 2010 to solve this mystery and study the natural history of the Pinocchio lizard. Unable to find the lizard by searching its known hideouts, Losos did what any good detective would: He set up a stakeout.

His team found the pale lizards at night and simply followed them into the day. This sleuthing revealed why the anoles were very rarely spotted during the day.

Slow, Elusive Lizard

For one, Pinocchio lizards are extremely well camouflaged and live high in the canopy. They also move very, almost ridiculously, slowly—hardly faster than a crawl.

pinocchio lizard picture
Photograph by Lucas Bustamante, tropicalherping.com

The latest team to discover the lizard also made some new discoveries about where the Pinocchio lizard lives.

“We discovered this lizard occurs in habitats very different to what has been suggested in the literature. No one had ever found the lizard in deep cloud forest away from open areas. The other sightings were in [the] forest border,” Arteaga said in a statement. (Also see “Pictures: 24 New Caribbean Lizards Found.”)

“It’s nice that this group spotted these anoles again,” Losos said. “What we really need are people to just go out into nature and study these creatures for a few months. It’s not that hard to do.”

Scientists have discovered similar horned anoles in Brazil, but a closer analysis revealed that these two species had evolved their horns independently.

And as for what the nose is used for, no one knows. Losos once suspected the males might use the horns in swordfighting-like duels, but the horns are far too flimsy and flexible to be used in such a way.

What do you think the horn is used for? Share your ideas below!

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Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com