Snake-shaped skink rediscovered

Vietnam Heritage, February 2011 -- Mr An, a ranger, said he had seen ‘a snake with legs’ on Dinh Mountain. I thought it might have been one of the two species of snake-like lizards in Vietnam, Lygosoma angeli. It was almost 90 years since the first specimen of this species had been collected by a French biologist in Trang Bom, Dong Nai Province, and it had long since been thought extinct.
The ‘snake with feet’ became my objective in continual trips to Dinh Mountain, 70 km northeast of Saigon. I failed to find it.


Mr Phung My Trung

On an afternoon in September, Mr An, I and another friend faced the last rain of the rainy season on the imposing Dinh Mountain. A stream of muddy water flowed. There was only moss on the vertical rock wall of the mountain. In the dry season, life would be difficult for moss, when it would have to sleep. At the same time, the lizard Lygosoma sp. would disappear and hibernate for months in rocky crevices.
Inky-black night came. With headlamps and bags, we quietly climbed to lizard habitat where Mr An had made his sighting. We checked every corner. Leaves were turned over. Heavy stones also, which needed the three of us.   
It rained. We sweated. Sounds of night-feeding birds and amphibians anxious for their lovers. Time passed slowly and it was almost 2 a.m.  A large area of rocks and dry leaves had been turned over. We were tired but tried to work faster.
Could the lizard survive for another year with the current speed of habitat-destruction, from human activities and fires? The chances would be low for our finding and photographing it. It would be even harder to conserve it for future humanity.
Mr An shouted. He had found a lizard in a crack filled with decayed leaves. We found a young lizard in a narrow crack. It could not be got out with tongs. We widened the crack slowly, so the lizard could not get away. The shiny young lizard appeared in the light of the lamp and I took it with a hand shaking from happiness.
This happiness was just a beginning, because we needed to compare the lizard with standard specimens in reptile museums in Paris and London. However, through my experience and knowledge I could be sure Lygosoma angeli remained in Vietnam, with a newly discovered habitat on Dinh Mountain. My colleagues would be very happy to know the species had been discovered again after many years.
Next year we could find adult lizards. A new distribution area of the rare lizard Lygosoma angeli could be recorded, once specimens were analyzed.
Dinh Mountain once had a large, green forest, where many new species were found and named. Now it is sad to see it with clear spaces and only small stands of timber and some brush.
Lygosoma angeli is brownish at its head, and gets gradually darker toward its tail. It is 25 to 28 cm long. It has very short limbs and toes of even size except for toe I. There are five plates under toe IV. Most lizards have tails slighter than their bodies but this skink has a tail as thick as its body, so the animal looks like a snake with legs. The scales on the back are not larger than other scales. Each scale has a basal black spot. The scales on the upper side of the skink are brighter than those on the underside. The lower eyelids have scales. The ear-opening is like a dot.

*Mr Phung My Trung is a freelance researcher in biodiversity who works in the Dong Nai Province Customs Department, after 14 years in that province’s Forestry Department.

Text and Photos by Phung My Trung
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