Close-up photo of a lightbulb lizard Close-up photo of a lightbulb lizard

Discovering the lightbulb lizards of Ecuador

Join us today in making an impact on Ecuadorian biologist Alejandro Arteaga’s mission to unveil six new species of ancient-looking lizards deemed capable of glowing in the dark. Your support is pivotal because it will enable us to discover new species and test whether bioluminescence occurs in lizards.

$14,146 raised of $48,000 goal.

30%

12 backers. 78 days to go.

Why are they called lightbulb lizards?

Much like the incandescent lightbulb, the reptilian lightbulbs are a miraculous invention. These diminutive and ancient reptiles have adapted to thrive in the dark and remote canyons and caves of South America’s mountainous regions, where other lizards cannot survive.

Their lives are spent underground, crawling in perpetual darkness.

In 1939, American cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson documented his expedition to Mount Aripo. While exploring dark subterranean pools, he unexpectedly spotted a faint, greenish glow emanating from a crevice.

Upon shining his flashlight into the crevice, he unveiled a small lizard. According to Sanderson’s account, the flanks of the saurian momentarily lit up. He remarked: “this creature seemed to produce its light in response to sudden emotional disturbance.”

This marked the initial recorded instance of a “luminous lizard,” giving birth to the term “lightbulb lizard.”

Despite the significance of this discovery, no other studies corroborated the lightbulb lizard’s extraordinary light-producing ability for 65 years.

That was the status quo until 2004 when American explorer Michael Knight and his colleagues published a study on these lizards. They presented evidence indicating that, “the lizards’ scales are highly reflective and, when combined with fluctuations in dermal pigmentation, this produces an optical illusion consistent with early natural history observations.”

However, no evidence of bioluminescence was found, at least not in that particular species.

Nonetheless, there are currently 34 identified species of lightbulb lizards, and many more may remain undiscovered.

Could it be plausible that one of these unexamined lizards genuinely radiates light in the darkness?

This is one of the questions we attempt to answer in this research project

Project background

In 2018, the authors of the Reptiles of Ecuador book noticed something strange about the lightbulb lizards of the Mindo cloud forest. These lizards were supposedly conspecific, but looked nothing like, the ones in Quito. They were smaller, had a variegated dorsal coloration, and were arboreal, whereas their highland counterparts were unicolored and adapted to the fossorial lifestyle.

Could they be different species?

To test this hypothesis, the team embarked on a mission to find additional lightbulb lizard populations.

At first, the focus was Pichincha province, but soon the quest expanded to the entire country.

Exploring the most remote Andean canyons, the team uncovered lighbtbulb lizards that had never been photographed. Some were so bizarre... they had to be new species!

Today, after five years of fieldwork, long nights at the museum, and preliminary genetic results, the team is close to proving that some of the lighbtulbs found are indeed undiscovered new species in need of urgent conservation.

But your support is needed to complete the last three steps of the mission:

1. Complete the last remaining expeditions in Ecuador by December 2023.

2. Generate DNA sequence data for the last “mystery” populations.

3. Cover the fees to publish the research.

What is special about the lightbulb lizards?

Lightbulb lizards (genus Riama) stand out as one of the world’s rarest and least studied lizard groups. Their elusive nature and burrowing tendencies have left a void of knowledge regarding their natural history, reproductive habits, and the extent of their species diversity. Typically, lightbulb lizards exhibit endemism not only to a single country but often to a specific Andean valley. Given the vast unexplored regions along the Andean mountain range, the total count of lightbulb lizard species is severely underestimated.

Why is this research urgent?

One of the recently discovered species of lightbulb lizards was located within a small patch of cloud forest, situated directly adjacent to a significant new hydroelectric project. The impending flooding of the valley could potentially lead to the extirpation of the only known population. Our strategy to avert this fate involves the creation of a press release and a documentary. These efforts aim to raise awareness about the existence of this endemic and critically endangered reptile. While the abandonment of the valley damming project is unlikely, media pressure can assist the hydroelectric company in preserving some of the river margins where this unique squamate resides.

October 5, 2023

Thanks to the support of our first seven backers, our team embarked on a week-long expedition to the Amazonian slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes. Our goal was to capture photographs and collect tissue samples from two previously unknown populations of lightbulb lizards, as well as test their bioluminescence capabilities. We successfully found nine specimens from two different species and obtained their DNA samples. In relation to bioluminescence, we made an intriguing discovery, though it remains inconclusive, leaving us with a mystery we aim to unravel in the coming weeks.

Figure 1: After four days of intense search in the cloud forests of the Amazonian slopes of the Andes in Ecuador, our team located two individuals of one of the target species of lightbulb lizards. Photo by Angie Tovar.

Figure 2: We discovered that the males of this undiscovered species of lightbulb lizard have a brigh red belly. However, we did not locate the females. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

Figure 3: Contrary to popular belief, lightbulb lizards are surprisingly perceptive and curious. They even seem to have binocular vision. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

August 6, 2023

The “Discovering the luminous lizards of Ecuador” project is born. While our team has been researching these mysterious creatures since the discovery of an isolated population of “bulbs” in the cloud forests of Mindo in 2018, the project was officially organized and launched in 2023. By this time, we had already completed nearly 80% of the fieldwork and genetic analyses, which gave us the confidence to announce our research objectives.

Figure 1: This lightbulb lizard is one of the new species unearthed during a series of expeditions to the Andes of Ecuador. We found it by interviewing local potato farmers, who mentioned the existence of a blue-shine subterranean reptile that “stings with its tail.” Photo by Amanda Quezada.

Figure 2: We have found most species of lightbulb lizards at the top of the cloud forest line in humid valleys at elevations between 1900 and 4000 m. Photo by Frank Pichardo.

Figure 3: We discovered that one of the best tecniques to find lightbulb lizards in the field is to dig up in areas of soft soil, particularly along roadsides. Photo by Frank Pichardo.

Figure 4: Some rare cloud forest lightbulb lizards could only be located by setting up pitfall traps with drift fences. This techinque allowed the collection of a new species. Photo by Frank Pichardo.

Figure 5: Recently, our team has moved its efforts into the museum and laboratory spaces to obtain morphological data from collected specimens. In this image, biologist Alejandro Arteaga examines a specimen of a new species of Riama. Photo by David Jácome.