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The “festive lizard”

Hello everyone! To be honest, I’ve had a little bit of “writer’s block” in trying to come up with a subject for my final Keeper Stories Blog of 2023. The year has certainly had a number of events. Many exciting or fun, many memorable, and some that have been less than ideal. There are a lot of fun subjects that I could certainly deep-dive into to show off my nerd-dom, but I think I will save that level of intellectual endeavor for next year (breakdown of the evolutionary history of crocodiles may be on the menu for 2024). Maybe I could do a jolly little jaunt about Christmas Toads? Well, probably not, since my research has led me to not much more than photoshopped images of Santa hats on toads or Santa hats on Toad, the mushroom character from the Mario Bros. franchise.

So what to do? I’ve been in a bit of a FESTIVE mood so far this season. So what can I talk about that is FESTIVE AND herpetological? Well, as it happens, there is a nifty LIZARD that just might fit the bill!

Throughout the Americas, the lizards of the family Teiidae are very widespread and very diverse. They range from the various small racerunners and whiptails of the southwestern United States (we have a lone representative of this group here in the Southeast, the six-lined racerunner) to the meter-plus-long tegus of South America that have become pervasive invasives in sub-tropical Florida. The lizard we will focus on was, until fairly recently, scientifically known as being in the genus Ameiva. Now, it has been reclassified into the much less friendly-to-the ear genus, Holcosus.

 Even the etymology of Holcosus leaves something to be desired (sorry taxonomists!). It appears to be a derivative of the Greek “Holkos,” which is a type of grain and seems to reference the small granular looking scales located towards the front of the head. Super fun and interesting, eh? The name Ameiva is derived from the now extinct Brazilian Tupí language (the genus was first described from Brazilian specimens) and based on research, it appears to be a contraction of two words that roughly mean “lizard that’s not fit to eat.” I could certainly agree with that, as these aren’t exactly what I would call especially “meaty” animals. Is the MEANING of the old generic name that much more interesting? Perhaps not, but the HISTORY of the name, not to mention the way it rolls so smoothly off the tongue makes it my preferred (although out of date) nomenclature for today’s species. Try saying it out loud a few times. It is often pronounced a handful of ways, but my personal favorites are A-MY-VA and A-MEE-VA. Then try saying HOL-CO-SUS. Worlds different! Okay, I’ll stop ribbing the taxonomic experts now.

Following that weird little detour into the etymology of the genus name of this lizard, I will now reveal what it is I’m actually talking about! The lizard in question goes by a few different common names, but for THE MOMENT, we will use the name Central American whiptail, and as this name suggests, it resides in Central America. Adults tend to be varying shades of brown with tiger-like stripes of darker, sometimes chestnut brown along the sides. The young are dark brownish black with orange or reddish highlights, yellow spots down the sides, a bright yellow stripe down the back, and a bright blue tail. Youngsters have a very gaudy, perhaps some might even say, FESTIVE look about them.  And yes, that is what leads us to our inevitable holiday-related “punchline” of sorts, the scientific name of the Central American Whiptail is Ameiva festiva (Holcosus festivus). Yes, loosely translated it is the “Festive lizard that’s not good to eat!” Not only that, but for those of us out there who may remember the Seinfeld inspired holiday “Festivus,” with the current taxonomic name, just like Festivus, there is a LIZARD for the rest of us! Therefore, I nominate we switch the common name from Central American whiptail (though technically accurate as it is a whiptail lizard that lives in Central America) to the FESTIVUS LIZARD FOR THE REST OF US! Sorry everyone, I know that was a LONG way to go for a not very strong punchline, but whether you found this funny, somewhat interesting, or just plain weird, I appreciate you letting me nerd out!

I wish you all the very best of holidays and can’t wait to see you around the Zoo in 2024!

Photo: A wild Ameiva festiva (Holcosus festivus) I observed and photographed in central Panama back in 2006 or 2007.

Robert L. Hill
Curator of Herpetology

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