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Self-cloning lizard found in Vietnam favored by gourmets

A popular food served in many restaurants in southern Vietnam is a self-cloning lizard previously unknown to science, a new study claims.

The all-female species Leiolepis ngovantrii, named after Vietnamese herpetologist Ngo Van Tri, ovulate and clone themselves, the study says.

Ngo Van Tri of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, known for the discovery of several other Vietnamese species, found live lizards for sale in a restaurant in the southern coastal province of Ba Ria-Vung Tau.

The reptile had rows of enlarged scales on its arms and bone layers under its toes that set it apart from other species, according to the study co-authored by Tri and his US colleagues, published April 22 in the journal ZOOTAXA.

The study suggests that the lizard is probably a hybrid from maternal and paternal lines of two related lizard species, a phenomenon that can occur in transition zones between two habitats.

It says that the new lizard's home, the Binh Chau-Phuoc Buu Nature Reserve, sits between scrub woodland and coastal sand dune.

"So species that do really well in one habitat or the other will occasionally get together and reproduce to form a hybrid," the National Geographic cited L. Lee Grismer of La Sierra University in California, who helped identify the lizard, as saying.

Tri had sent photos of the lizard to Grismer and his son Jesse Grismer, a herpetology doctoral student at the University of Kansas, after noting that the reptiles at the restaurant all looked strangely similar.

The father and son suspected the lizards belong to an all-female species as no males were seen in the photos. So they took a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, telephoned the restaurant to "reserve" the lizards, but the man there served them all to customers before the team arrived.

"The Vietnamese have been eating these for time on end," Grismer was cited by NATGEO as saying.

"In this part of the Mekong Delta, restaurants have been serving this undescribed species, and we just stumbled across it."

Still, the Grismers eventually examined nearly 70 of the lizards found at other restaurants in the area and gathered from the wild by local children. All the lizards turned out to be females.

According to the NATGEO report, single-gender lizards are not odd, as about one percent of lizards can reproduce by parthenogenesis, meaning the females ovulate and clone themselves to produce offspring with the same genetic blueprint.

Grismer said the newly discovered hybrid species may already be at a disadvantage.

Charles Cole, curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said some scientists have suggested hybrid species are more prone to extinction because they don't produce much genetic diversity.

""¦ In terms of lizards, most that are unisexual species"”when compared to the lineages of other lizards"”have not been around very long," said Cole, who was not involved with the research on the newly found lizard.