REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It seems like new species are discovered pretty frequently, but they're usually tiny things like insects. So how did scientists miss a four-foot-long pink iguana that's been around for a few million years? It's "Science Out of the Box."
(Soundbite of music)
ROBERTS: The Galapagos Islands have been famous for their wildlife ever since Charles Darwin hatched his theories on evolution by studying Galapagos finches. But even Darwin didn't get everywhere on the Galapagos Islands. And more than 20 years ago, scientists hiking on an island known as Isabela spotted an iguana that was, well, pink. What they didn't know was whether the pink lizard was a genetic mutation or a whole new species. Now that's been cleared up by a team led by Italian researcher Gabriele Gentile. Howard Snell of the University of New Mexico is one of the co-authors of a new article about this pink iguana. It was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Howard Snell joins us now from member station KUNM in Albuquerque. Welcome to the program.
Dr. HOWARD SNELL (Professor of Biology, University of New Mexico): Thank you. Glad to be here.
ROBERTS: Describe the pink iguana for us.
Dr. SNELL: They are large, relatively slow animals. And these ones are beautifully pink.
ROBERTS: And the pink color, it's sort of a pale, fleshy pink from the pictures. Can you describe it for us?
Dr. SNELL: When we first saw them, some of us thought that they were just normal land iguanas that perhaps lacked pigment and therefore had this pinkish color. And we still think that that might be the mechanism of the pink. Because if you squeeze the skin of the pink iguana, it's kind of like squeezing the tip of your finger and it'll turn white. And then when you release it, sort of, as the blood flows back in, it turns pink again. And when you get that kind of a coloration, it may be due to the underlying capillaries, the underlying blood in the skin which could be visible, because normal pigment in land iguanas, which makes them show up as being yellow or sort of brownish, might be missing. But that's all very, very hypothetic, and it's just an idea at this point.
ROBERTS: I, of course, haven't spent nearly as much time studying or squeezing iguanas as you have. But just looking at the pictures, it's pretty unforgettable. It's - how did it take so long to figure out that this was a distinct lizard?
Dr. SNELL: Sure. That's a good question. You might say, well, a place like Galapagos where a hundred thousand tourists a year go, how could that happen? And the point is that these occur on the most remote side of the most remote volcano on the largest island in the Galapagos. It's a very difficult place to visit. And the first time I was up there, which was in the late '70s, I was probably the 10th or the 15th person who'd ever been to the summit of that volcano. So, it's not an area that's visited very much.
ROBERTS: And scientifically, how do you confirm that it is a new species?
Dr. SNELL: Cruz Marquez, the Ecuadorian man who first realized that these things were something special, he was saying, Howard, this is a new a species. And I was saying, well, Cruz, you know, I don't really think so. I think this is a normal land iguana that just has something wrong with it, and therefore there is an environmentally induced variation that has caused this coloration. And so Cruz and I would go round and round about that.
And about the same time we started working with Gabriele from Italy. And Gabriele starts to look at the genetics and the blood and things like that, and that's the work that was just published in the PDS paper which shows that these lizards are very, very distinct from Galapagos land iguanas and therefore are a distinct species.
ROBERTS: I understand the species doesn't yet have a Latin name?
Dr. SNELL: Discovering a new species is one thing, and then naming it is a practice of taxonomy, and that's a very formal process, as it should be. And so the next step then is the formal naming of the organism.
ROBERTS: Iguana researcher extraordinaire Howard Snell of the University of New Mexico, thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. SNELL: Thank you. Very glad to be here.
ROBERTS: And if you want to get a look at that pink iguana, go to our Web site, npr.org. While you're there, let us know what you think scientists should name this species. Just drop it in the comments area.