In 1891, the Italian explorer Elio Modigliani brought a lizard to a natural history museum in Genoa that he had found in Indonesia. The lizard had a horn that protruded from its nose, and after a while, in 1933, because it was the first time that scientists had seen that type of lizard, it got its taxonomic name, Harpesaurus Modigliani. But since Elio Modigliani, nobody has ever seen that type of lizard again until 2018.
Chairunas Adha Putra is a wildlife biologist from Indonesia, and in 2018 while doing some bird research around Lake Toba in North Sumatra, he noticed a dead lizard with some unique features. He wasn’t sure what it was so he called a herpetologist to examine the lizard. Thasun Amarasinghe, a herpetologist from Jakarta, only needed one look at the lizard’s horn to know that it is the Harpesaurus modiglianii lizard that is an endemic species only found in North Sumatra.
Lizards have a big part in the mythology of the Bataks – the indigenous people that live in that region of Indonesia, but in all their art and folktales, there is nothing about a lizard species like Modigliani’s lizard.
So Thasun asked Chairunas to go back to the place where he found the dead lizard and search the area to see if there are any live ones. Chairunas scoured the area for five days before finding what he has been looking for. A live specimen of the lizard just relaxing on a branch. He then took some photos of it and measured it to see the length of the body and the horn, he took notes of the shape of the body parts, he watched his behavior and later released it back in the same place he found it.
Using Chairunas’ descriptions, photos, and data, Thasun Amarasinghe concluded that the dead lizard and the one that was found alive belong to the same species Harpesaurus modiglianii. The color of the original specimen has turned to slightly blue because of the preservation methods. Now it is known that these lizards in their natural habitat are very luminously green. And its behavior is comparable to some other African lizards.
This lizard belongs to the family Agamidae that are also known as dragon lizards. Bearded dragons also belong in the Agamidae family along with around 350 more species. It is also noted that many Agamidae species live in places that are very difficult to access for scientists and that there are around 20 species that only have one type specimen when they were first discovered and never seen since then.
Everyone is happy with this discovery, but also sad at the same time because the habitat of the Harpesaurus modiglianii is not in a conservation area and it’s not protected at all. They hope that with all the new information and data that they have about this dragon lizard, they can try to implement some conservation measures for this magnificent species.