dampier peninsula goannaLizards don't get much bigger than the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), which can reach three meters in length and may weigh as much as 70 kilograms. But not every member of the Varanus genus is a giant. Scientists in Australia last month unveiled the newest Varanus species and it's as small as the Komodo is large. The newly discovered Dampier Peninsula goanna (V. sparnus) is just 23 centimeters long and 16 grams in weight. That's about the size of a human hand, which would barely count as a nibble for a hungry Komodo dragon.

According to research published in the Records of the Western Australian Museum (pdf), the Dampier Peninsula goanna split off from its closest relative, the 25-centimeter pygmy goanna (aka the short-tailed monitor, V. brevicauda) between six million and seven million years ago (roughly the same time chimpanzees and humans went their separate ways on the evolutionary ladder). The new lizards are described as not just shorter than the pygmy goanna (which probably deserves a new name now) but also thinner and more boldly colored.

The scientists who discovered this new goanna don't go as far as declaring it endangered quite yet but note that it has an incredibly limited distribution—the Western Australia peninsula for which it is named. The pygmy goanna, by comparison, ranges through almost the entire Australian continent. The researchers call for "some kind of protected status" until more is known about the new species.

Visitors to Western Australian Museum in Welshpool can see a female specimen of the new species—nicknamed "Pokey"—but they have to look carefully. She's wiggly, fast and apparently loves to burrow beneath the sand and hide. Maybe she's sensitive about her weight (or lack of it).

Photo: R. Ellis, Western Australian Museum

Previously in Extinction Countdown: