Credit by earless monitor, Lanthanotus borneensis | Photo: Christopher Mumbles Murray
70-million-year-old living fossil from Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei

70-million-year-old living fossil from Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei

If you’ve never heard of the earless monitor lizard, you’re not alone: this little-known, cryptic lizard has long-escaped the attention of the larger public. But over the past couple years its bizarre appearance has been splashed across social media sites for reptile collectors. While this decidedly-quirky attention may seem benign, it could actually threaten the species’ existence, according to a new report from the wildlife trade group, TRAFFIC.

Only found on the island of Borneo, the earless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis) is so distinct from any other lizard that that it’s the sole member of its family, Lanthanotidae. It is also rarely seen–despite being discovered in 1878–due to underground and nocturnal habits. Around 20 centimeters long (8 inches), the animal lacks any external ears–hence its name–and sports stout limbs and beady eyes with a translucent window covering the lower half.

“These are all thought to be adaptations to a subterranean lifestyle,” reads the TRAFFIC report entitled Keeping an ear to the ground: monitoring the trade in Earless Monitor Lizards, which adds that “its morphology links it to a 70 million year old fossil from Mongolia hence it is sometimes referred to as a living fossil.”

Earless monitor lizard | pinterest
Earless monitor lizard | pinterest

Earless Monitor Lizards have no external ear opening, a cylindrical lengthened body covered in scaly tubercles (due to an increased number of vertebrae), small limbs, a prehensile tail, a forked tongue, and small eyes with the lower eyelid covered by translucent “windows”.  As such it is placed in its own monospecific family Lanthanotidae.

The small, orange-brown lizard with beaded skin was once primarily of interest to scientists because of its unique adaptations for living below ground, and there were few instances of private ownership reported during the last 30 years.

The Earless Monitor Lizard is legally protected in its native range countries of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia. The sudden, growing international interest in the species, however, raises concern given the absence of international trade regulations that would criminalize any such activity. Currently, this is the only species of monitor lizard not protected from over exploitation under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

“For zoologists and conservationists working in Asia, the Earless Monitor Lizard is truly a mythical creature and something we have read about in the classical scientific literature. The last detailed observations were made on individuals caught in Malaysian Borneo and date from the 1960s. It is very sad indeed that the next time the Earless Monitor Lizard resurfaces after an absence of almost 50 years it is individuals being illegally traded internationally,” said Dr Vincent Nijman, Professor of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University and author of the report.

TRAFFIC recommends that the Governments of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia list Earless Monitor Lizards in Appendix III of CITES as an immediate interim action to allow proper monitoring and regulation of trade in this species. Appendix III of the Convention requires that trade must be conducted only with the appropriate paperwork, which allows countries to track and assess levels of international trade.

TRAFFIC also recommends the species be eventually listed in Appendix I of CITES, and that enforcement agencies in end-use countries increase their vigilance and efforts to crack down on the availability of these stolen reptiles. A listing in Appendix I of the Convention means all commercial international trade in this species would become illegal.   

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