With its bright orange head and glossy black body, the fittingly named torch monitor lizard was described for the first time this week by UCSB professor Sam Sweet and graduate student Valter Weijola. The torch monitor, which can grow up to four feet long, is closely related to the monstrous Komodo dragon, and exists only on the small island of Sanana in the western Moluccan islands. It’s scientific name is Varanus obor.
According to the recent report published in the journal Zootaxa, the torch monitor lives on a diet of small mammals and carrion and is also related to a fruit-eating monitor recently discovered in the Philippines. Sweet theorizes that because of the Moluccan islands’ unique ecology — characterized by a lack of large mammalian predators — lizards like the torch may have had the opportunity to stretch out, so to speak, and climb to the top of the food chain in the area. Sweet, who specializes in monitor biology, also points out that the torch is the only black specimen in its lineage, and the only monitor in the world to develop red pigmentation.
“East of Wallace’s Line - the boundary between Asian and Australian domains - there are no native carnivorous mammals,” said Sweet, “and monitor lizards fill that role. There are more species there, doing more different things ecologically than in Africa or South and Southeast Asia, where competition and predation by mammals tend to keep monitor lizards down. East of Wallace’s Line in Indonesia, New Guinea, and Australia, monitor lizards are on the top of the heap. It emphasizes again how little we know about some tropical regions, to find an animal so strikingly colored and so large only last year.”
A graduate student at Abo Akademi University in Turku, Finland, Weijola discovered the new species last spring when he traveled to the region, returning with Sweet in late 2009 for five weeks to take photos and conduct studies.