In 1986, rangers hiking on Wolf Volcano on the northern end of Isabela Island noticed several odd-looking Land Iguanas. While most Land Iguanas in Galapagos are a uniform mottled yellow, this one was pink with dark spots and stripes.
The rangers reported the iguanas, but it was assumed for a long time that they were simply regular Galapagos Land Iguanas that had been injured in some way.
Later, a study was initiated to discover if it was a subspecies of Galapagos Land Iguana, with some sort of evolutionary mutation to make it more competitive in its environment. A recent study, however, has scientists and the people of Galapagos buzzing: the pink iguana is a new species, significantly different from the other two Galapagos iguanas.
The announcement, by Gabriele Gentile of Tor Vergata University of Rome (which conducted the study), is a shocker. According to preliminary analysis, the iguana has been on Galapagos for around 5 million years, making it older than many of the islands themselves.
They are only found on Wolf Volcano, which is about 350,000 years old, so they must have moved at one point. The study compared DNA and blood samples taken from 36 specimens since 2001.
There is still much that is unknown about the newest official member of the Galapagos reptile family. Researchers do not know how many there are, what they eat, their mating habits, etc. It is probable that the population is relatively small given their limited habitat, and a breeding program to protect them may be needed.
Northern Isabela Island is home to many dangerous introduced species, such as cats and rats, although feral goats (which are probably the greatest danger to iguanas because they eat the vegetation) have been mostly removed from the area.
According to current data, the population and risk factors for the pink iguana would classify it as “critically endangered” under the guidelines established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The study shows that the iguanas are not only different in terms of genetics and color, but physically and behaviorally as well. The pink iguana has a more pronounced ridge behind its head and displays a different “head-bob,” a behavior linked to mating and territoriality. The pink iguanas can reach lengths of a little over three feet (one meter) and can weigh up to about 15 pounds (7 kilos).
The Pink Iguana will no doubt take its place alongside other unique and wonderful Galapagos characters, such as the cormorant that does not fly, the penguin that lives on the Equator and the finch that sucks blood.
As Gentile writes in the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Despite the attention given to them, the Galapagos have not yet finished offering evolutionary novelties”.
” This exciting new discovery only reinforces the Galapagos Islands’ nickname: “the laboratory of evolution.”