Clarification regarding the Irian Jaya, Eastern, & Merau

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Clarification regarding the Irian Jaya, Eastern, & Merau

Postby James Wilson » Mon Oct 24, 2011 8:30 pm

Clarification regarding the Irian Jaya, Eastern, & Merauke

There has been so much confusion regarding the Irian Jaya BTS and its similarity to other described BTS forms like the Eastern BTS and the merauke faded BTS that I have decided to post descriptions and a little information on these three forms in the hopes of clearing up some of that confusion. In addition I have posted a seperate thread with a Tiliqua species key along with scincoides and gigas subspecies keys as well. I hope it helps.

There are many things things to pay attention to when identifying BTS species, subspecies, and undescribed forms. That being said, there two easy tips that will help with the Irian Jaya vs Eastern question that I see so often here. Patternless pale front legs are a scincoides trait that the Irian Jaya rarely ever displays. In addition, that short fat tail is also a Scincoides trait that you will not see on the Irian Jaya. The Gigas influence in what helped to make what we know as the Irian Jaya BTS still shows through in their longer tails and patterned front legs. That being said, these traits are shown on the Irian Jaya in varifying degrees, and there are times it can still be tricky. Hopefully this information will help members with their future identification efforts.

Irian Jaya Blue-tongued Skink Tiliqua ssp.
(Currently undescribed)

The Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink was recently discovered in the early 1990s, and currently remains undescribed and unnamed. Many hobbyists believe it to be a 4th scincoides subspecies. For the first few years after the Irian Jaya blue-tongue's discovery, it was considered quite rare, and it carried a very expensive price tag. Because of its hardiness and its similar appearance and disposition, to the Common Australian Blue-tongue, it became very popular in the pet trade. In time it became fairly inexpensive, and for a time, replaced the Indonesian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua gigas) as this country's new and improved blue-tongue import staple.

There is a lot of confusion in regard to the origin and identification of the Irian Jaya blue-tongue, causing it to be frequently misidentified. The Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink has become common in U.S. collections due to the large numbers of them that have been imported in recent years. In spite of this, there is still very little information published about them in current literature. What has been published has usually proven to be misleading, causing even more confusion.

Once the Irian Jaya blue-tongue secured a place in the reptile hobby, importers started calling it the New Guinea blue-tongue. This new name seemed appropriate since this skink is from all of New Guinea, including Papua and Irian Jaya. Unfortunately, this name is also another misused common name for the Indonesian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua gigas), which also shares New Guinea as a portion of its range. Now, there is at least one book available that pictures both species under this same common name. For obvious reasons I avoid using the term "New Guinea Blue-tongue" so as not to create or perpetuate any more misinformation.

There are many people who find it suspicious that such a large skink could go undiscovered for so long, and once again, there are those who embrace the conspiracy theories. Some literature claims that the Irian Jaya blue-tongue is a man-made mutt, possibly created by intergrading the two Australian scincoides subspecies, smuggeling them out of Australia, and then exporting them out of Irian Jaya with false locality data in order to mask their true origin and to create a more marketable blue-tongued skink for importation. It has been further suggested that other Australian skinks may have been smuggled by unscrupulous individuals into Irian Jaya, and then hybridized on large scale breeding farms, with some animals either escaping or being released into the wild so as to populate the area for future harvesting. There is obviously a great deal of speculation in regards to this "new" blue-tongue, and I feel that it is necessary to set the record straight.

When all of the speculation started, the Irian Jaya blue-tongue was still quite rare and very expensive. At that time this would have provided the motive for the greedy smugglers and exporters, creating at least some basis for the conspiracy theory supporters. However, Irian Jaya blue-tongues were soon imported in large numbers, and have become one of the most affordable of all of the blue-tongues on the market, laying the motive of greed to rest, and making this crime basically impossible to accomplish, due to shear numbers alone. There is simply no way that a smuggling operation of such a large scale could go on without detection for over twenty years.

The fact that the Irian Jaya blue-tongue does bear some resemblance to the Australian scincoides does not mean that it is actually a scincoides subspecies. It does, however, raise some interesting questions. The Irian Jaya blue-tongue also shares many physical similarities with the Indonesian blue-tongued skink Tiliqua gigas, while inhabiting a geographic range that falls directly between these two different species. I have also found the Irian Jaya blue-tongue to be totally inconsistent in its color, pattern, and overall morphology, often making identification quite difficult. It is only by using the process of elimination that a person is able to identify a given specimen as the Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink. Basically, if it does not fit the bill for any of the other currently described and accepted Tiliqua species or subspecies, then it is an Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink. This skink does not follow any of the rules. In the past, I have been able to take one T.s. scincoides and one T. gigas and place them on opposite ends of a table with 8 Irian Jaya blue-tongues in between, creating a line of natural progression that flows so smoothly from one end to the other that there is no place to draw a line between the two species. Also of interest is the fact that when the Irian Jaya blue-tongue is cross bred with any other Tiliqua species or subspecies, the offspring always come out looking like Irian Jaya blue-tongues. The same can be said for intergrade offspring that I have seen from a breeding between T. g. gigas and T. g. evanescens. What does all of this suggest?

In order to get some idea as to the actual origin of the Irian Jaya blue-tongue, we should first look at the evolutionary origins of the genus Tiliqua in New Guinea. Evidence suggests that T. gigas is the sister species to T. scincoides, and that these two form a clade that is a sister clade to remaining Tiliqua species (possibly excluding T. adelaidensis). Experts also agree that Tiliqua is the sister taxon to Cyclodomorphus, Trachydosaurus, and Hemisphaeriodon, all of which are exclusive to Australia. Knowing this, it is quite safe to conclude that Tiliqua is an Australian genus, and that T. gigas evolved form an Australian ancestor.

According to Dr. Glenn Shea, there are two different theories as to how this may have happened, and what role it plays in the origin of the Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink. The first is that T. scincoides dispersed into New Guinea across the Torres Straight via an existing land bridge thus giving rise to T. gigas, afterwhich a second scincoides invasion to the extreme south occurred with the later closure of the Torres Strait and the subsequent hybridization that resulted in a population of hybrid animals that gave rise to the Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink. The second theory is that a common ancestor which occurred in both Australia and New Guinea evolved separately into T. gigas and T. scincoides due to some geographical barrier(s) other than the Torres Strait in New Guinea (possibly the Maoke mountain range). Hybridization resulted from the subsequent reintroduction of the two different species that later became isolated due to the closure of the Torres Straight, leaving us with the hybrid population of animals that we now know as the Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink. Both theories basically suggest the same thing, and that is that the Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink is the result of past hybridization between T. gigas and T. scincoides.

While the elaborate conspiracy schemes make for exciting writing, they are based on weak logic, employing many fallacies in reasoning, and are written by individuals with limited or no experience on the subject. After reviewing all of the evidence, I have to agree with Dr. Shea in that the Irian Jaya blue-tongue is a naturally occurring hybrid population that went overlooked in a country that has new reptiles being discovered every year. Unfortunately, because of these findings it is very unlikely that this skink will ever be given its own scientific designation. However, there are currently genetic studies being performed to detect if there has been any hybridization, and how this unique and popular blue-tongued skink fits into the genetic puzzle in comparison with the other described species.

Description: The Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink is one of the more variable blue-tongues. It often looks almost like a cross between the Eastern, Northern, and the Indonesian blue-tongued skinks, borrowing different characteristics from each of them. It is common for many of these characteristics to be inconsistent, and or muted, thus, making identification difficult, and adding to its already confusing status. Like the eastern blue-tongue, it has the bold bands, that cross over the back and onto the sides. The head is variable, often resembling the northern blue-tongue which lacks the dark temporal streak. However, there are exceptions, with some individuals having strong temporal streaks, which is a trait known to some populations of the Eastern blue-tongue. That being said, the Irian Jaya blue-tongue's tail is generally longer than the three scincoides subspecies, accounting for 65-85% of the snout-vent length. The forelimbs are also quite variable, ranging from dark brown (but never black) with some cream flecking on them (resembling T. gigas) to a lighter brown with almost no flecking on them (looking more like, but not quite as light as, the Eastern or Northern blue-tongues). The hind limbs are usually darker than the forelimbs, and very often have large cream spots on them. Their anterior temporal scales are elongated and much longer than the other temporal scales. With a maximum size of 22 inches, the Irian Jaya blue-tongue is a relatively large blue-tongue that can produce up to 15 live young in a litter.

Distribution and habitat: The Irian Jaya blue-tongued skink inhabits the dry tropical regions of southern coastal New Guinea that are similar in climate and habitat to adjacent northern Australia. Its range includes both Irian Jaya (the western half of New Guniea that is governed by Indonesia, and allows exportation of its wildlife), and Papua, New Guinea (the eastern half of New Guinea that was governed by Australia up until 1975, and allows no exportation of its wildlife.)

Merauke Faded Blue-tongued Skink Tiliqua gigas evanescens (Shea, 2000)
Dr. Glen Shea described this new subspecies of the Indonesian Blue-tongued Skink as (Tiliqua gigas evanescens). It is also commonly referred to as the Merauke Gigas. The sub-specific name evanescens, means to fade or lighten, and makes reference to the faded appearance that adult specimens are said to display. Dr. Shea chose to refer to this new subspecies as the Southern New Guinea Blue-tongued Skink. Since the undescribed Irian Jaya Blue-tongue also inhabits southern New Guinea, and is still occasionally referred to under this same name. I have chosen to call it the Merauke Faded Blue-tongued Skink. I feel that it was a logical compromise to use the old common name, with a tie in to the scientific name. While common names are not set in stone, I do feel that they play an important role in species identification in the pet industry and the reptile hobby, and that there should some consideration taken to avoid any potential confusion that could be caused when giving new common names. The Merauke Gigas has been exported out of Merauke in southern Irian Jaya, since the mid 90's, and is starting to be seen more often, in some of the larger pet store chains here in this country. There has been a great deal of speculation with regard to the actual origin of this blue-tongue, with many people suggesting that it may be the result of hybridization between the Common Indonesian Blue-tongue (Tiliqua gigas gigas), and the Irian Jaya Blue-tongue (Tiliqua ssp.) To date there is no evidence to support this theory.

Description: As a baby, the Merauke Faded Blue-tongued Skink is nearly identical in appearance to the Common Indonesian Blue-tongue. However, as it grows into adulthood, its color and pattern will often fade and become much less obvious than in Tiliqua gigas gigas. Adult specimens are usually a slate grey color with thin grey or tan bands. Like the Common Indonesian, the Merauke's ventral surface may or may not be striped or reticulated with black and orange. It has the typical gigas black limbs and single black nape stripe. However, its head is usually much paler and usually unmarked. The Merauke Gigas has a tail that accounts for 80-90% of the snout-vent length, with more defined banding on it than Tiliqua gigas gigas. The anterior temporal scales of the Merauke Blue-tongue are elongated and much longer then the other temporal scales. It is a large skink (especially for a gigas), with adults ranging between 20 (51 cm) and 27 inches (68.5cm). Unlike many of the island forms of Tiliqua gigas, the Merauke Gigas often has a good disposition.

Distribution: The Merauke Faded blue-tongued skink can be found through out southern New Guinea covering the majority of Papua and a small portion of south-eastern Irian Jaya. It is has been reported to inhabit the transitional zones between the coastal plains (frequented by the Irian Jaya blue-tongue Tiliqua sp.) and the Tropical forests (frequented by Tiliqua gigas gigas).

Eastern Blue-tongued Skink Tiliqua scincoides scincoides
The Eastern Blue-tongued Skink was very popular and common in the in the US hobby back in the 1980s, but was later cast aside by collectors and breeders who were more interested in the larger northern blue-tongue (intermedia) which was very expensive at the time. Ironically, because of the sudden interest shift in breeding efforts, the Eastern Blue-tongued Skink is currently very hard to find in the US hobby, causing it to now be very desirable and expensive. When they are available, they often look suspiciously like intergrades, or northern blue-tongues. I have seen northern blue-tongues being marketed as eastern blue-tongues on more than one occasion.

Description: The Eastern blue-tongue is variable in color, but usually has a grey to tan background color with darker bands that extend over the back onto the sides, and sometimes continuing onto the belly. The scales of the paler interspaces (between the darker bands) are usually marked with dark lateral edges, creating a series of thin dark brown lines that run down the length of the body. Many (but not all) specimens possess a heavy, dark brown or black, temporal streak that starts at the back of the eye and runs back to the top of the ear opening. Their forelimbs are basically patternless, and are always much lighter in color than the hind limbs. The anterior temporal scales on the Eastern blue-tongue are elongated and much longer than the other temporal scales. This skink has 34-40 mid-body scale rows, and its tail accounts for 50-60% of the snout-vent length, and it often appears to be thicker than the other three subspecies. Average adult size for this subspecies is 17-19 inches (43-48 cm), with some individuals growing as large as 21 inches (53 cm). Females can produce 10 to 20 live young in a litter.

Distribution and habitat: The Eastern blue-tongued skink can be found in south-eastern South Australia and throughout the majority of Victoria, New South Wales, and southern Queensland, where its range moves north up the east coast along the Cape York Peninsula.

The Eastern blue-tongued skink has also been observed in a small isolated population in extreme north-western South Australia about 600 miles away from the nearest point of the range that they were previously thought to be restricted to. The existence of this population was first reported in 1992, by G.R. Johnston, in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. He was unable to determine whether they were naturally occurring. However, the local aboriginal people had known of them for a long time. The Eastern blue-tongue inhabits a wide variety of habitats, including coastal woodlands, montane forests, and semi-arid grasslands.
Last edited by James Wilson on Tue Oct 25, 2011 4:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby mark_w » Tue Oct 25, 2011 5:03 am

Hi James,

A very interesting and welcome contribution!

This is a fascinating topic and I wish I had some answers! Two thoughts. One, IJs are very difficult to separate from scincoides from the northern part of their range - the Brisbane Easterns - but easily separable from Northerns, and this confuses the story.

A couple of observations - if you like, criticisms - but intended in the spirit of an engaging debate. The first couple points are a bit pedantic - my apologies...

First, just to confuse us, Indonesia no longer uses the name Irian Jaya and the term seems to have been misused for some time. There are two Indonesian provinces on New Guinea - Papua and West Papua. West Papua was at one time known as west Irian Jaya, but Indonesian New Guinea has never been 'Irian Jaya'... Of course we all know/use the term Irian Jaya and so it is perhaps best to stick with it!

Second, Papua New Guinea is not part of Australia, it is an independent country!!!

Third, in the Contributions to Tiliqua book, based on morphometry and pholidometry, IJs were classed as a (geographic) form of the merauke T. g. evanescens. (I don't have any reason to doubt this).

Also, naturally occuring hybrids, in number/across a wide area, do not exist. If two species interbreed that freely, they ain't species, by definition...

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Postby Katrina » Tue Oct 25, 2011 1:28 pm

Thank you James and Mark - it is great to have people on here knowledgeable enough to discuss this topic.

I thought that the Merauke vs IJ discussion was largely resolved, but it appears that there still are some questions are gray areas. It seems there are two schools of thought, one being that there are 'Classic' Meraukes, 'Newer Form' Meraukes, and IJs (with the 'Newer Meraukes' comprising a large portion of the imports we have seen in the last several years) and the second being that there are 'Classic' Meraukes and all else that isn't Merauke or Indo is an IJ. Obviously these are all just labels, but it would be nice to have consistency in what we are labeling.

I will move this over to the Advanced Discussion area and hopefully it can be continued to be discussed over there. Thanks again!
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Postby James Wilson » Tue Oct 25, 2011 4:38 pm

mark_w wrote: First, just to confuse us, Indonesia no longer uses the name Irian Jaya and the term seems to have been misused for some time. There are two Indonesian provinces on New Guinea - Papua and West Papua. West Papua was at one time known as west Irian Jaya, but Indonesian New Guinea has never been 'Irian Jaya'... Of course we all know/use the term Irian Jaya and so it is perhaps best to stick with it!


No need to argue over names for the region, as my writtings were written back in 2000 when the region was correctly referred to as Irian Jaya. In addition, I am aware of the many name changes the area has experienced in the past. Indeed, they have changed very often over time due to the political instability of the region over the years, and with total inconsistancy depending mainly on who you ask, where they are located, and what political affiliation they are loyal to. At some point, I will have to update my writtings and change all of the references of Irian Jaya to Western New Guinea. It is a safer name with less political implications, and it should be correct for a longer period of time. Until then, I am pretty sure most of us here know what I am area I am referring to when I say Irian Jaya. So again, please be patient with me as most of my writtings on the subject of BTS were written in the late 1990s and finished in 2000.

mark_w wrote:Second, Papua New Guinea is not part of Australia, it is an independent country!!!


You are absolutely correct. That being said, Papua, New Guinea was governed by Australia up until 1975. I made a simple typo in my writting, and thank you for catching it (you will find many more if you read my writings). What a big difference two letters can make (is vs was). I will edit that one in the post right now. However, the basic point is the same. Papua does not export, as it still abides by the Australian non-export laws that it fell under while under Australia's rule. And as we all know, Western New Guinea (once known as Irian Jaya) does export.

mark_w wrote: Third, in the Contributions to Tiliqua book, based on morphometry and pholidometry, IJs were classed as a (geographic) form of the merauke T. g. evanescens. (I don't have any reason to doubt this).


I do.

mark_w wrote: Also, naturally occuring hybrids, in number/across a wide area, do not exist. If two species interbreed that freely, they ain't species, by definition...


You can call them species, subspecies, forms or whatever you want. In reality, the taxonomists never fully agree, and in the end, they are just names or lables. The point is they are what they are, and I firmly believe that the Irian Jaya is the result of cross breeding between what we know as gigas and scincoides at some point in time. The animals do not care about their names or our definitions. They do what they do with complete disregard to our names, lables and definitions, and it is us that end up having to constantly change these names and definitions over time as a result.
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Postby mark_w » Wed Oct 26, 2011 12:43 pm

Hi James - I'm just trying to facilitate a bit of debate, that's all.

It's just that the idea that Irian Jayas are a naturally occurring hybrid between gigas and scincoides doesn't hold up. If you had both parent species occupying juxtaposed distributions, with a hybrid zone where the two distributions meet, then maybe. But, we have only one species on the island - gigas and you can not keep producing hybrids in the presence of only one parent species. So whilst it is a very tempting idea, given that IJs seem to have characteristics of both gigas and scincoides, for me it falls at the first hurdle...

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Postby Katrina » Wed Oct 26, 2011 1:17 pm

I think the idea is that IJs were a hybrid between scincoides and gigas historically. Several thousand years ago, when the water levels were low enough, a couple scincoides made their way to the southern portion of the island and hybridized with the existing gigas population. Fast forward many years and you have a population that is no longer hybrids but still have the scincoides x gigas appearance that could arguably be classified as its own species or subspecies.
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Postby xxmonitorlizardxx » Wed Oct 26, 2011 2:35 pm

ok... These pics are super big sorry I shrink them in a minute.
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Postby xxmonitorlizardxx » Wed Oct 26, 2011 2:39 pm

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Postby James Wilson » Wed Oct 26, 2011 6:31 pm

Katrina wrote:I think the idea is that IJs were a hybrid between scincoides and gigas historically. Several thousand years ago, when the water levels were low enough, a couple scincoides made their way to the southern portion of the island and hybridized with the existing gigas population. Fast forward many years and you have a population that is no longer hybrids but still have the scincoides x gigas appearance that could arguably be classified as its own species or subspecies.


That is exactly what Dr. Shea has suggested, and what I agree with. However, it was more than just a couple skinks that made it across, as there was a sizable land bridge between the two land masses (that is how the skinks that later evolved into what we know as gigas made it there in the first place). It is almost like he never red the actual explaination. Oh well. I tried.
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Postby xxmonitorlizardxx » Wed Oct 26, 2011 7:45 pm

Bberry has been identified as a merauke.
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Postby Scotts1au » Thu Oct 27, 2011 12:33 am

The land bridge between png and Northern Aus was open as little as 3000 years ago meaning that it is likely that there was still a relatively free exchange of T.scincoides scincoides into what is now png.

I'm not arguing that at some point they may have hybridised, if you buy into the argument that would separate them as species in the first place - meaning they existed in various forms of integrades. I strongly suspect that T.gigas originated from island populations of common ancestry to T.scincoides (which has fossil records in Aus into the many millions of years).

Although you will find lots of arguments, the last 3 million or so years have seen many periods that we would describe as ice ages and opportunities for stranding of genetics in warm island populations hence opening and closing of land bridges. It is no suprise that forms such as Meraukes are found in lowland habitats and probably just reflect the genetic variance of the species complex with forms more suited to lowland (natural competitive advantages) and those more suited to upland or more mixed habitat types. Clearly the form that we would readily identify as T.gigas represents this lowland adaptation.

Be mindful of the human desire to brand and as we have discussed on here before animal nomenclature is a human construct. Of course there are valid reasons for wanting to do so but it would be very easy to be confidently wrong in assuming that IJ's are the result of what some would consider to be historic hybrisation per se.
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Postby critterguy » Thu Nov 03, 2011 12:36 am

Scott: Where is your information on the fossil record/land bridge from? Just curious.

It is curious that skinks of Western PNG(IJ's) more closely resemble Easterns than Northerns.
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Postby Scotts1au » Thu Nov 03, 2011 2:47 am

Critterguy, the information you are after is all over the web. Also there is a good book called Aboriginal environmental impacts that details a lot of the information that you are after in the context of aboriginal settlement, rises and falls in sea levels etc.
http://books.google.com/books/about/Abo ... g8lX6dmM8C

There are references relating to the extinct ancient species that trace the ancestry of Tiliqua in Aus back nearly 15 million years. Tiliqua pusilla,
http://www.austhrutime.com/riversleigh_lizards.htm

Skinks of Western PNG more closely resemble Easterns because the land bridge formed from Cape York Peninsula, not Darwin.
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Postby Alioop » Thu Nov 03, 2011 10:11 am

I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this conversation, but I did want to let all the participants know just how much I've enjoyed reading it! Such great information, interesting points of discussion... I've got a huge nerd-crush on this thread right now! :love: Thank you James, Mark, Scott & Kat!!
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1.0 Irian Jaya
1.1 Easterns

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