I really hope this is a Meadow lizard, otherwise this whole article is going to be somewhat redundant... Image by Darren Naish. CC SA.

While in Romania back in 2011, I photographed the lizard you see here. It’s clearly a lacertid: a member of the Eurasian-African group that contains the familiar Lacerta sand lizards and green lizards as well as many other groups. But, beyond that, I couldn’t identify it in the field. Back at Tet Zoo Towers, and with the literature to hand, I identified it as a Meadow lizard, a relatively obscure lacertid that I’ve never knowingly seen before.

For fun, here's an uncropped version of the original photo I took. The lizard was some distance away and my camera was a small handheld without a good zoom. Image CC SA.

This is a specialist of south-eastern Europe (Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece), also occurring in European Turkey, parts of Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Russia (Agasyan et al. 2009). Significant habitat loss and deterioration across much of its range means that it’s considered ‘near threatened’, and is thus of conservation concern. Strongly contrasting with the idea that everything is rosy as goes the health and distribution of animal populations is the fact that lizards of many kinds are substantially harder to find than they used to be, and are often not findable at all.

Anyway... the Meadow lizard is another of those lacertids where the name that’s most familiar in the books – Lacerta praticola, in this case – is no longer the ‘right’ one to use*. Phylogenetic studies, you see, find the Meadow lizard and its many close relatives (traditionally termed the ‘Lacerta saxicola group’) to be some phylogenetic distance from Lacerta proper (e.g., Kapli et al. 2011), and hence we have a ‘new’ generic name: Darevskia Arribas, 1997. Harris et al. (1998) recognised that this group needed a new name and proposed Caucasilacerta, unaware that Arribas (1997) had named the same group just the year before. Actually though, while students of the Lacertidae currently seem happy to accept that Arribas published the name Darevskia in 1997, this was in a PhD thesis. Now, I don’t want to be that guy, but – normally – a name published in a thesis doesn’t trump the ones that get published in periodicals or books. I humbly suggest, therefore, that Darevskia might not be as available as everyone seems to be thinking, and that Caucasilacerta Harris et al., 1998 might really be the ‘right’ name to use. With this in mind, I’ll stick with Darevskia for the rest of this article.

* The classic lacertid examples of this sort of thing are the Viviparous lizard Zootoca vivipara and Ocellated lizard Timon lepidus, both of which were formerly listed as additional Lacerta species in the literature.

D. armeniaca, one of the several parthenogenetic Darevskia species. Image by Petra Karstedt, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Darevskia species (there are approximately 30) have a distribution that’s very much centred in the Caucasus [photo above by Petra Karstedt]. They’re mostly rock-climbers but some – including D. praticola – are strongly terrestrial, apparently secondarily (Arnold 2004). They have a high presacral vertebral count compared to other lacertids (27 in males, 28 in females), a single large postnasal scale, and they lack a contact between the supranasal and loreal scales (Arnold 1989, Arnold et al. 2007)... hey, all of this will mean something to those of you who know squamate anatomy.

Here's the refresher for squamate head scalation you were looking for. This image (depicting a lacertid) is from Arnold (1989). In case it isn't obvious, you need to obtain and read Nick Arnold's papers if you're really interested in lacertid diversity and evolution.

The best known thing about Darevskia is that several of its species are parthenogenetic. Like other parthenogenetic lizards (most famously the Cnemidophorus whiptails), this is thought to have arisen via hybridisation from more conventionally reproducing species, though the exact mechanics of how it evolved and how it works seem enigmatic.

Another specimen of D. praticola. Photo by Kiril Kapustin, image CC BY-SA 2.5.

D. praticola itself – the species I saw in Romania – is small (SVL c 60 mm) and usually rather plain; males often have a green or yellowish belly and a whitish throat [adjacent photo by Kiril Kapusti]. The legs are proportionally short, the head is reasonably deep, the body scales are coarsely keeled, and there’s usually a serrated collar. Lizards of many sorts have distinct so-called ‘collars’, and I've sometimes wondered whether they’re something to do with neck mobility or skin flexibility. But so many other lizards don’t have them, so I’m not sure a ‘mechanical’ role makes sense. Anybody got any ideas?

Massively simplified lacertid cladogram showing approximate structure recovered in recent studies. Latastia by Guérin Nicolas (CC BY-SA 3.0), Acanthodactylus by Richard Hing, Eremias by Yuriy75 (CC BY-SA 3.0), Takydromus by Acapella (CC BY-SA 3.0), Lacerta by Darren Naish, Gallotia by Petermann (CC BY-SA 3.0), Psammodromus by Wolfgang Wüster. Image CC BY-SA.

Before the ‘Lacerta saxicola group’ was awarded the name Darevskia, the species were regarded as part of the Archaeolacerta group (Fu et al. 1997). Indeed, Darevskia has sometimes been grouped with Archaeolacerta and Iberolacerta in the so-called ‘European mountain lizard group’, sometimes called the archaeolacertae (Mayer & Arribas 2003). A close relationship between these three is not supported in all molecular phylogenies, however, since numerous other taxa are positioned between them in these studies (Kapli et al. 2011).

It is at least agreed, however, that these are all members of the Lacertini clade that also includes Takydromus, Lacerta, Timon and so on: see the adjacent massively simplified lacertid cladogram for a reminder of where this group belongs within the radiation [Latastia by Guérin Nicolas, Eremias by Yuri75, Takydromus by Acapella, Gallotia by Petermann].

All of which reminds me... that there are still a lot of lacertid taxa that I haven’t yet written about.

Oh, one last thing... this whole article would be utterly redundant if my identification of the lizard above as a Meadow lizard were incorrect. Hey, it's happened before.

For previous articles in the Tet Zoo lacertid series, see...

Refs - -

Agasyan, A., Avci, A., Tuniyev, B., Isailovic, J. C., Lymberakis, P., Andrén, C., Cogalniceanu, D., Wilkinson, J., Ananjeva, N., Üzüm, N., Orlov, N., Podloucky, R., Tuniyev, S., Kaya, U., Böhme, W., Ajtic, R., Tok, V., Ugurtas, I. H., Sevinç, M., Crochet, P.-A., Nettmann, H. K. & Krecsák, L. 2009. Darevskia praticola. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 25 March 2015.

Arnold, E. N. 1989. Towards a phylogeny and biogeography of the Lacertidae: relationships within an Old-World family of lizards derived from morphology. Bulletin of British Museum of Natural History (Zoology) 55, 209-257.

- . 2004. Overview of morphological evolution and radiation in the Lacertidae. In Pérez-Mellado, V., Riera, N. & Perera, A. (eds) The Biology of Lacertid Lizards. Evolutionary and Ecological Perspectives. Institut Menorquí d’Estudis. Recerca 8, 11-36.

- ., Arribas, O. & Carranza, S. 2007. Systematics of the Palaearctic and Oriental lizard tribe Lacertini (Squamata: Lacertidae: Lacertinae), with descriptions of eight new genera. Zootaxa 1430, 1-86.

Arribas, O. J. 1997. Morfología, Filogenia y Biogeografía de las Lagartijas de Alta Montaña de los Pirineos. Ph.D. Thesis. Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, 353 pp.

Fu, J., Murphy, R. W. & Darevsky, I. S. 1997. Toward the phylogeny of caucasian rock lizards: implications from mitochondrial DNA gene sequences (Reptilia: Lacertilia). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 121, 463-477.

Harris, D. J., Arnold, E. N. & Thomas, R. H. 1998. Relationships of lacertid lizards (Reptilia: Lacertidae) estimated from mitochondrial DNA sequences and morphology. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 265, 1939-1948.

Kapli, P., Poulakakis, N., Lymberakis, P. & Mylonas, M. 2011. A re-analysis of the molecular phylogeny of Lacertidae with currently available data. Basic and Applied Herpetology 25, 97-104.

Mayer, W. & Arribas, O. 2003. Phylogenetic relationships of the European lacertid genera Archaeolacerta and Iberolacerta and their relationships to some other ‘Archaeolacertae’ (sensu lato) from Near East, derived from mitochondrial DNA sequences. Journal of Zoological Systematics & Evolutionary Research 41, 157-161.