Ancient Blue Eyes on Borneo

monitorweb2When it comes to the island of Borneo, one expects the unexpected. One expects plants and animals that are found nowhere else on earth. One even expects these unique animals to be strange, look completely different from any other animal in nature, and do things no others do. And those who have these expectations are not disappointed. Borneo is full of exactly such lifeforms. Many we know of today, but many more we don’t know of yet. They wait, silently in the forests, rivers and mountains, waiting patiently for someone to discover them, tell the world about them, and bring them into the world’s spotlight. They await recognition. They await their little place in the sun.

Here’s a story about one of these unique animals, discovered and described in 1878 but never properly understood and seen in its living form. This is the Bornean Earless Monitor, scientifically named Lanthanotus borneensis. It was first described from a dead animal found after a flood in northern Borneo, near the town of Sibu. It was 15 inches long, covered with a leathery skin with thorn-like spikes, a long tail and small feet. It was a lizard. It had no ears.

In 2015, at an undisclosed location, I encountered a living earless monitor. It was a sunny day, and I was resting by a small clearwater stream. I had just trekked 3hrs through the humid jungle, and found this small bubbling brook of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. I was sitting on the smooth water-sculptured boulders on its banks, lunching on an extremely squashed egg sandwich dug out from the bottom of my rucksack. My sweat-drenched shirt was drying on a rock, covered with a whole bunch of fluttering butterflies attracted by the salty sweat.

I had been sitting there about 30mins when suddenly I saw movement in the water. I spotted a small lizard swimming on the surface, some 10m from me. Following its slow swim, I realised this was a creature I had never seen before. It had a plump appearance, unlike a water monitor which is the common swimming reptile one encounters on Borneo. It was all reddish brown, unlike a crocodile which has distinctive markings. It appeared to be very rough skinned at first impression. Its skin was clearly not smooth. It disappeared under water.

I watched the area for a long time, probably a full 15 minutes before I spotted the animal again, emerging amongst some rocks. It climbed half way out of the water and settled on a rock. This time I could put my binoculars on it, and was amazed at what I saw! Before me was some prehistoric-looking reptile. The first thing I noticed was its eyes. They were blue. Blue eyes were totally out of character for a reddish-brown lizard.

This was a heavily scaled lizard, with each scale a bulging diamond-shape, like a snake. On top of this heavily scaled skin were rows of rough-pointed conical thorns. Each thorn was like a small pyramid, broad at the base and blunt at the tip. Each tip was slightly lighter coloured, creating the appearance of dotted lines from its head all the way to its tail.

I took my binoculars away for a moment, sitting back to absorb what I was looking at. My heart was beating fast, and I realised I was hyperventilating. The overpowering excitement of seeing an animal I had never seen before began to subside, and I began to breathe normally again.

Now I could watch this incredible lizard again, with a calm mind and steady hands. I began to observed it in great detail, taking mental notes of its shape, colour, markings and everything else I could think of. I realised I had time, because it was just lying there, apparently with no intention of leaving soon. I too wasn’t leaving anytime soon either! Not until it left.

It did eventually slip back into the water and swim away with a lazy serpentine movement that made me think snake rather than lizard. Its oddly sized small limbs and elongated body made it really look more like a snake when swimming. It didn’t use its feet to propel itself, but rather the undulations of its body, just like a snake. I couldn’t help think this must be an animal evolutionarily somewhere in-between a snake and a lizard. Its blunt snout and virtually no discernible neck added to this effect.

There ends my account of a first-time meeting with an extraordinary animal. Yet another lifeform that has evolved on Borneo, and remains confined to this great island. The encounter left me with more questions than answers. It also left me with a revitalised resolve to find the next Bornean animal that no one has yet seen. I know deep inside me that these animals exist. They are out there, waiting for someone to find them, and tell the world about them. Give them their moment in the sun. Give them recognition, give them a name and give them a sound and safe future. Surely this is what nature asks of us, one simple ask – know them!

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