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Real Heroes Save (Not Slay) Dragons

You will not find one perched beside Danerys Targaryen or on the roof at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Prince Charming does not slay one, and Hiccup the Viking will not teach you how to train one. Yet the Sailfin dragon is more than just literature and legend.

 The Sailfin dragon is real – and in danger.

A Sailfin dragon, photographed by Scott Corning

 The Sailfin lizard, commonly known as the Sailfin dragon, is one the most secretive species on the planet and also one of the hottest commodities in illegal pet trading. In fact, until recently, scientists were unaware of the Sailfin’s existence entirely. But thanks to thirty years of research, the endangerment of this magnificent species may soon draw to an end. 

In collaboration with Rafe Brown and Andres Lira from the University of Kansas, in addition to the Philippine National Museum and the Biodiversity Management Bureau, Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler has spent the past ten years studying these elusive creatures in hopes of answering two questions. 

1. Where is genetic diversity distributed for this species?

2. How can this knowledge be applied to the illegal pet trade?

 To answer these questions, herpetologists conducted 40,000-50,000 biological surveys across 7,100 islands in the Philippines. What’s a biological survey, you ask? Essentially, researchers conduct surveys in rainforests to document all species present at a site. Then, they collect vouchered specimens and tissue samples that represent each species in global natural history collections. Genetic samples are used to develop a DNA database that allows herpetologist to construct phylogenies, or family trees, that illustrate relationships between species.

 

The Philippines on a world map

“It’s always a great feeling to have an example of an applied conservation approach to what we do in a natural history museum,” said Siler. “We stockpile the world’s biodiversity, yet a lot of people don’t know why we do it or what it gets used for.”

But how does this keep Sailfins off the black market?

 To establish sustainable homes for the Sailfins, scientists must first understand what types of habitats these lizards prefer. Then, by cataloguing the locations of all vouchered individuals (museum specimens), researchers can check to see what proportion of Sailfin habitats are government protected – and that’s exactly what the team did.

But according to Siler, the findings were “astonishing”.

 Although the Sailfin lizards are considered a vulnerable species, less than 10 percent of their suitable habitat is currently being protected. But that’s not all. Every single specimen surveyed at one of the major Filipino pet markets came from peninsula in northeastern Philippines. Yet only 0.8 percent of this land is protected.

 

All specimens from local pet markets stemmed from just one peninsula

Now what?

 According to Siler, these findings are terrifying but promising. If illegal pet trade specimens are being collected from one isolated region, enforcement of local conservation laws will be more controllable.

“Knowing this, there actually can be more of a directed conservation effort in this region,” Siler said. “That’s an exciting result of combining DNA studies with vouchered biodiversity collections in natural history museums.” 

Siler, Brown and their collaborative team plan to continue their research in July 2014, thanks to a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation. This expedited grant allows the researchers to continue collecting biological surveys in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated much of the Philippines in 2013. 

So, what does this mean for the Sailfins?

The more herpetologists understand about this rare species, the more local governments can implement effective conservation regulation. Although the story of the Sailfin dragon is not yet concluded, researchers are looking forward to a new chapter – a chapter of knowledge, a chapter of change.

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