I may be the only journalist ever to have been charged with the overnight care of a Darlingtoni – a zebra-striped Haitian lizard that hasn't been seen since 1984. The creature is so rare and coveted that a Harvard team made a trek through the remote mountains of southern Haiti several years ago, hoping to find it. They returned without their quarry.
This Darlingtoni was captured this week by a team led by Penn State University biologist Blair Hedges. Over four days he's used a helicopter to reach various remote locations along the southern peninsula of the country – places that Hedges believes have never been explored by a biologist before.
I've been lucky enough to join his team, which includes a grad student, a photographer/naturalist, a videographer, and a botanist who happens to speak Creole. That skill has come in handy when locals carrying machetes emerged from nearby hills. The team searches into the nights, sleeping only a few hours. They subsist on trail mix.
The purpose of the trip was not to find this one lizard, but to catalogue the animals that eke out a living in the 1% of Haiti's original forests. What they found stunned them. The dwindling cloud forests that crown the highest peaks are still alive with dozens of different frog calls, and dime-sized frogs of various colors and shapes cling to ferns or hide in the underbrush.
Evolution has been particularly creative here, perhaps thanks to the way the rugged topography isolates populations of animals, allowing divergence. Haiti has more frog species than any other part of the Caribbean, despite its nearly bald landscape. It's also rich in a type of small lizard called an anole.
The Darlingtoni is a type of anole, named after biologist Philip Darlington, who first catalogued the animal in the 1930s. Hedges found a few more in another region in 1984, but he believed that area has since been too deforested to support them. The latest find was on a remote hillside, at the chilly altitude of 2000 meters. There, the group went out on a moonless night, searching the forest with headlamps, the only natural light coming from the Milky Way and some white fireflies.
The finder of the Darlingtoni was Miguel Landestoy, a 27-year-old freelance photographer and sharp-eyed naturalist from the Dominican Republic. He somehow spotted it 6 feet overhead, sleeping in a tree fern. The team combed the same patch of forest for more than two hours hoping to find another one, but if this lizard had companions of its kind, they were higher up or better hidden.
Near the end of the trip, the team began searching in a region that was lower and much hotter, and the blistering sun was threatening the whole collection of rare frogs and lizards. With my own skin beginning to burn, I volunteered to take the more than 100 animals back by helicopter to the island of La Vache, off the south coast of Haiti, where there was an air conditioned hotel room waiting for them. These high-altitude creatures are adapted to cool temperatures and can die if exposed to more than a minute or so of harsh daytime sun.
There, I was instructed to check the bags periodically to see if they'd deflated, in which case I was to add air and possibly a bit of damp paper towel. I also had to make sure the air conditioning stayed on in the room I was to share with the animals. Though some will inevitably die, the goal was to get them through the trip and back to Pennsylvania alive, where they can be studied and catalogued. Every time I checked, the frogs and lizards were stirring. By luck, most got through the night, and are now in Port-au-Prince awaiting their first and only trip to the United States!
Hedges estimates they've picked up about 33 unique species here – several of them never seen before - living proof that if deforestation doesn't stop in Haiti, we will never know the full extent of the country's loss.
I'll be back in Philadelphia next week and writing more about this adventure soon.