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 a significant impact on Ecuadorian biologist Alejandro Arteaga’s mission to unveil six new species of ancient-looking lizards, preventing their extinction. Your support is pivotal because will enable us to gather the crucial final evidence required to publish this research.

$7,906 raised of $48,000 goal.


7 backers. 78 days to go.

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.

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.