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Lizards from Zoo Atlanta will help wild populations

In an outstanding example of collaboration for the conservation of one of the world’s rarest lizard species, 11 endangered Guatemalan beaded lizards hatched at Zoo Atlanta arrived at Parque Zoológico Nacional La Aurora in Guatemala on January 10, 2024. The lizards, three males and eight females, will be part of a breeding colony to bolster the wild population of the species, which is estimated to number only 500 to 600 individuals in its native Motagua Valley.

Scientists at La Aurora Zoo and Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City are working together to introduce zoo-bred offspring from La Aurora Zoo into areas of recovering habitat surrounding the fully protected Reserva Natural Heloderma (Heloderma Reserve) within their wild range. Local landowners have agreed to protect the rare lizards and continue efforts to restore native habitat outside the reserve.

Zoo Atlanta’s contributions to the study and conservation of this species date back more than 25 years. The first group of Guatemalan beaded lizards to live at the Zoo arrived in 2000 from the University of Texas at Arlington. Zoo Atlanta has since had many successes breeding this reclusive species, with a total of 41 offspring hatched.

The individuals selected to travel to La Aurora Zoo will not be released into the wild; rather, their offspring will be introduced to the wild following a quarantine period.

The Guatemalan beaded lizard is an example of an animal most Americans would have no awareness of were it not for zoological populations. Discovered by science relatively recently in the mid-1980s, the lizards have been known to local people in their native Motagua Valley for thousands of years. For generations, these reptiles were shrouded in myth and legend stemming from the fact that they are venomous lizards (this species is closely related to the familiar Gila monster of the southwestern U.S.).

In truth, Guatemalan beaded lizards spend most of their life below ground and eat almost exclusively bird and reptile eggs, and they pose no threat or harm to humans on the very rare occasions when they are encountered. While community conservation efforts and educational outreach have done much to stem fear-based killings, the species still faces significant pressures from habitat loss due to agricultural development, as well as illegal collection for the international pet trade.

Biodiversity matters

While all living things are connected and are important for their intrinsic value and for their roles in their ecosystems, many organisms and their biology and adaptations have additional values that are only now being discovered by science – or may never be known if these species cease to exist. The properties of the Guatemalan beaded lizard’s venom, which is used only in self-defense and is not used to capture prey, have only recently been discovered. Unlike most lizard species, the Guatemalan beaded lizard has a high aerobic capacity and uses a unique hormone to stabilize its own blood sugar levels during contrasting periods of eating and fasting. This hormone has been synthesized by pharmaceutical companies in the treatment of human diabetes.

Learn more about Guatemalan beaded lizards here on, and see members of the species at the indoor Scaly Slimy Spectacular: The Amphibian and Reptile Experience.

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