Context & Culture

Lizards of Afghanistan: An unknown collection discovered in Serbia


Lizards far from home. Some of the specimens brought back from Afghanistan in 1972 and now part of the Belgrade collection of lizards from Afghanistan at the Siniša Stanković Institute for Biological Research at the University of Belgrade. Photo: Jelena Bjelica

Lizards far from home. Some of the specimens brought back from Afghanistan in 1972 and now part of the Belgrade collection of lizards from Afghanistan at the Siniša Stanković Institute for Biological Research at the University of Belgrade. Photo: Jelena Bjelica

In the summer of 1972, Serbian ornithologist Voislav Vasić travelled to Afghanistan and brought back a collection of lizards. It was a favour to a herpetologist (specialist in reptiles and amphibians) colleague. The collection, practically forgotten since has been rediscovered and re-examined by a Czech herpetologist Daniel Jablonski who published a paper with Serbian colleagues about it in May 2019. For Jablonski the collection’s rediscovery was thrilling, given that, he says, “Afghanistan [is] one of the most important herpetological regions of the world.” AAN’s Jelena Bjelica reports on Vasić’s long-ago adventure and on the new light the collection has shed on reptile biodiversity in Afghanistan.

The Afghan summer of 1972

Back in 1972, Voislav Vasić was a young scientist studying birds at the Siniša Stanković Institute for Biological Research at the University of Belgrade. He was also a fledgeling adventurer who knew one thing for sure, that, as he put it ‘travel was in my blood’. That wanderlust was to take him to Afghanistan. “We did not know much about Afghanistan’s birds back in the 1970s,” he told AAN. “It was like a journey into the unchartered waters of birdwatching.”

Vasić left a secure job and, with a little inheritance money and what he could gather from selling his car (an old Fiat 500), prepared to head east. He promised two of his colleagues and friends at the institute, one a herpetologist, the other a mammologist, that he would bring back specimens for them as well. He packed animal traps and specimen jars next to his birdwatching gear, camera and medicine, and faithfully carried this bulky baggage all the way to Afghanistan. Roughly following the Hippie Trail, he first jumped on a bus from Belgrade to Istanbul, then, carrying on overland, travelled to Tehran, and finally into Afghanistan via Islam Qala in Herat province. In Afghanistan, he travelled from Herat via Kandahar and Ghazni to Kabul. From there, he drove through the Central Highlands all the way up to Faryab and further west to Badghis province. He also ventured to Badakhshan, Nangrahar and Panjshir. In short, he managed to travel to most of the country, collecting specimens and making observations along the way.

During Vasić’s stay in Afghanistan, his luggage was raided a couple of times by curious Afghans. The mice traps were lost for good at the beginning of the journey, along with his determination to bring back samples of mammals. A couple of jars filled with lizard specimens also went missing at the end of his adventure. Vasić believes the thieves had been after the alcohol in which he preserved the collected specimens.

I had not been able to find pharmaceutical alcohol in the pharmacies in Kabul. They were selling only methyl alcohol, which is green. Alas, neither the green colour of the alcohol, nor the specimens in the jars stopped those thieves from ‘borrowing’ my jars.

It was late August of 1972 when Vasić returned to Belgrade, carrying 27 specimens of lizards and amphibians back with him. He handed them over to his colleague in the Siniša Stanković Institute.

About the Afghan lizard collection

The friend and lizard-loving colleague from the beginning of this tale who was the intended recipient of Vasić’s collection was Gregor Džukić. Vasić recalls that his colleague was not sure what to do with all the specimens as, in the 1970s, there was almost no literature on Afghan herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians). Nevertheless, the two men presented a paper, “A Contribution to the Herpetofauna of Afghanistan” in 1974 at the Fourth Congress of the Biologists of Yugoslavia, held in Sarajevo. They had examined the specimens and determined the subspecies levels according to the ‘biodiversity keys’ and taxonomy then being used to identify species and subspecies. (1) Their paper, however, was little quoted in international academic works. Thereafter, the collection was carefully stored in the refrigerators and dark rooms of the Biological Institute. For almost 30 years, even during the 1990s when Yugoslavia fell apart through bloody civil wars, the Afghan lizards remained safe in their jars.

After 2000, as Serbia embarked on series of democratic transitions after the fall of Milošević’s regime, the biological Institute was also re-invigorated. Džukić, just before his retirement, together with a new generation of biologists who joined the Institute in the late 2010s, began a lengthy process of cataloguing the Institute’s herpetological collections. It took several years to complete.

In 2017, the new catalogue was published, and this is when Czech herpetologist Daniel Jablonski from Comenius University in Bratislava noticed that, among the 8,213 specimens originating from 23 countries, were specimens from Afghanistan. Jablonski, who specialises in the amphibians and reptiles of Central Asia, and who had already carried out research in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, found this discovery thrilling: “I am especially interested in the amphibians and reptiles of Afghanistan as it is a centre of species diversity for several groups in Central Asia. Unfortunately, despite great effort, I have never visited this country.” (2)

Jablonski approached the Institute and suggested to colleagues there that they jointly write about the Afghan lizards in the Institute’s collection. In May 2019, four herpetologists – Daniel Jablonski, Aleksandar Urošević, Marko Andjelković, Georg Džukić – published an article in ZooKeys entitled “An Unknown Collection of Lizards from Afghanistan” (available here). Their work was based on looking at the Belgrade collection and using new species identification keys to classify the specimens. They compared the information and species distribution data with a 2016 taxonomy of Afghan lizards and amphibians published by Wagner, Bauer, Leviton, Wilms and Böhme. (3)  Wagner at al had found the Afghan herpetofauna comprised 116 species (with two subspecies) belonging to 58 genera and 21 families. Jablonski and his Serbian colleagues’ re-examination of the Belgrade collection complimented the 2016 taxonomy with, as they put it “additional historical data not yet considered.”

The Belgrade collection contains 27 specimens in seven lizard genera representing four families, Agamidae (iguana-like lizards), Gekkonidae (geckos), Lacertidae (wall lizards) and Scincidae (skinks).

The four herpetologists in Belgrade concluded that:

Updated species distribution maps reveal new locality or province records and an important range extension for Eurylepis taeniolata Blyth, 1854 [the Yellow-Bellied Mole Skink] which represents the northernmost record for this species in Afghanistan.

The Yellow-bellied Mole Skink – see a picture and read about this slender, shiny yellow lizard here – was found by Vasić in Samangan province, and although the specimen is from 1972, this is a new record for the species, as well as the northernmost species record for Afghanistan. The Yellow-bellied Mole Skink was previously recorded in Badghis, Kandahar, Khost, and Nangrahar provinces, according to Wagner et al. However, Vasić sighting was the first most northerly in the country.

According to Jablonski, “the previously unknown specimens” are available for additional examination, for example, of their DNA.  Jablonski also stresses that the collection is important because it gives scientists “data before the civil war,” as well as bringing attention to “our poor zoological knowledge about this biogeographically important country.”

“I am really happy that we published this paper together with my great colleagues from Belgrade,” Jablonski told AAN, but added, “More research is needed on Afghanistan.”

Why Afghan lizards?

Afghanistan is significant, positioned where two biogeographical regions meet, the Palearctic, which stretches across all of Europe, Asia north of the foothills of the Himalayas, North Africa, and the northern and central parts of the Arabian Peninsula (4) and the Indomalaya, which extends across most of South and Southeast Asia and into the southern parts of East Asia (5). This means that the country is on a crossroads between two different climates and two different biological and zoological realms. These regions meet geographically in the Hindu Kush range, which acts as the invisible division between two biogeographical zones.

An agama lizard, alive in its natural environment in Afghanistan. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

An almost one meter-long agama lizard (Caucasian agama, Paralaudakia caucasia), alive in its natural environment in Afghanistan, Musayi district, southern Kabul province. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005)

As with other fauna and flora (see AAN reporting on Afghan flowers), such overlapping and meeting of two biogeographical regions and the resulting increase in species diversity makes Afghanistan fascinating and significant. For herpetologists it is, Jablonski et al conclude, “a species hotspot for some amphibians and reptiles (like Hynobiidae [Asiatic salamanders], Agamidae, Lacertidae [and] Colubridae [the largest family of snakes]).” Some of these reptiles, they say, live in areas that have never been zoologically explored and belong to “unknown or taxonomically unresolved species.” Furthermore, the article says, “distribution data relating to the herpetofauna of Afghanistan are very important from a biogeographical point of view, and comparative material from this country is rare.” All in all, they say “Afghanistan [is] one of the most important herpetological regions of the world.” Yet, forty years of war in Afghanistan have made it difficult for in-depth zoological or herpetological research. According to Jablonski et al, current zoological and herpetological research in Afghanistan is almost “completely non-existent.”

Conclusion

It seems extraordinary that this important collection of Afghan lizards is housed in Belgrade (6), given the minimal, though important, historical interaction between Afghanistan and what was once Yugoslavia. However, a short historical digression might show why Vasić decided to travel to Afghanistan in the early 1970s when wanderlust struck him. King Zaher Shah had visited President Josip Broz Tito in Belgrade in November 1960, a year before the first summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was held in Belgrade. Afghanistan was among the 25 founding member states of this movement, that emerged as the colonial system collapsed and in an effort to find a place for countries during the Cold War that was neither pro-Soviet or pro-America. A few years before Vasić went to Afghanistan, Tito himself had also visited the country, in February 1968. Afghanistan thereafter had featured regularly in Yugoslav media, as was the case with any country Tito visited. This may have brought it to Vasić’s attention.

Belgrade, the capital now of Serbia, is certainly an unusual place for the lizard collection, given that diplomatic relations between Serbia and Afghanistan are de facto non-existent. Nevertheless, science once again proves that it works beyond the political boundaries of our world. The biologists of the 1970s, as well as the new generation, managed to preserve knowledge about Afghanistan, itself caught up in upheaval and torment, and have now shared it openly with the world.

Edited by Kate Clark and Christian Bleuer

 

(1) The two important studies on herpetofauna of Afghanistan from that period are: Schmidtler JJ, Schmidtler JF (1969), “Über Bufo surdus; mit einem Schlüssel und Anmerkungen zu den übrigen Kröten Irans und West-Pakistans,” Salamandra 5: 113–123 and Leviton AE, Anderson SC (1970), “The amphibians and reptiles of Afghanistan, A checklist and key to the Herpetofauna,” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 38: 163–206.

For more on biodiversity keys, see Daniel Jablonski, Aleksandar Urošević, Marko Andjelković, Georg Džukić published an academic article untitled “An Unknown Collection of Lizards from Afghanistan” (available here).

(2) Jablonski, though, has publicised, together with Alan J. Lesko of the 7th Air Support Operations Squadron, Fort Bliss, Texas, who had been temporarily based in Camp Salerno, Khost, southeastern Afghanistan, an article, “New locality record of the Bengal monitor, Varanus bengalensis”, based on observations made by Lesko from August 2006 through March 2007 in Afghanistan. Quote:

This is the first record in this region and province and is now the southernmost record of the species in the country, located approximately 120 km in a straight-line distance from the closest records near the city of Jalalabad in the Kabul river valley. The lizards in the Base lived in burrows under man- made structures, mainly tents, in housing areas with raised wooden flooring of (…) plywood. (…)

We assume that the range of the species in Afghanistan follows cross-border river valleys between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is possible that the species will be found in southeastern or southern Afghanistan since several records are known from Pakistani Balochistan close to the Afghan border…

(3) Wagner P, Bauer AM, Leviton AE, Wilms TM, Böhme W “A Checklist of the amphibians and reptiles of Afghanistan, Exploring herpetodiversity using biodiversity archives,” in the Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 63: 457–565.

(4) The Palearctic is one of the eight biogeographic realms of the Earth, first identified in the 19th century, and still in use as the basis for zoogeographic classification. The Palearctic is the largest of the eight realms and has several ecoregions: the Euro-Siberian region; the Mediterranean Basin; the Sahara and Arabian Deserts; and Western, Central and East Asia.

Central Asia and the Iranian plateau ecoregions are home to dry steppe grasslands and desert basins, with montane forests, woodlands, and grasslands in the region’s high mountains and plateau. In southern Asia, the boundary of the Palearctic is largely altitudinal. The middle altitude foothills of the Himalaya between about 2000–2500 m form the boundary between the Palearctic and Indomalaya ecoregions.

(5) The Indomalaya region, also called the Oriental realm by biogeographers, extends from Afghanistan through the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia to lowland southern China, and through Indonesia as far as Java, Bali, and Borneo, east of which lies the Wallace line, the realm boundary named after Alfred Russel Wallace which separates Indomalayan from Australasia. Indomalaya also includes the Philippines, lowland Taiwan, and Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. Most of Indomalaya was originally covered by forest, mostly tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, with tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests predominant in much of India and parts of Southeast Asia.

(6) Belgrade became the capital of the then newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians in 1918 after the First World War. It remained the capital of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, as the country was renamed in 1929, until 1945. Then, it became the capital of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until 1992. As the wars in the Yugoslav republics began in 1991, the state again changed its name and borders. From 1992 until 2003, Belgrade remained the capital of then Milošević’s state, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, whose borders changed with the dynamics of the war. From 2003 to 2006 it was the capital of Serbia and Montenegro, and since 2006 has been the capital of the Republic of Serbia.

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