By Beryl A. Bwong

NAIROBI, June 2 – Rock Agamas are some of the most conspicuous lizards. They occur locally in large numbers and are familiar to many due to their large heads and in particular the bright colours of many breeding males.

The males typically bob their heads up and down in a mythical style. Recently, a new Rock Agama was discovered in Marsabit County in northern Kenya, increasing the currently known Agama species in Kenya to 10.

A new Agama species in 2021? One may ask. Given the way these lizards are so obvious with their vivid colouration, one would assume that all is already known about the Kenyan Agama lizards. Quite to the contrary, as the latest discovery has proved. New species can still be discovered, and not necessarily by expert herpetologists. Anyone with a keen eye for detail can spot a unique species. And that is how the new species, Marsabit Rock Agama (Agama wachirai) was discovered.

Female Marsabit Agama: Photo by Washington Wachira

What began as a birding mission in search of larks in May 2019 ended up with a new reptile! Washington Wachira, in the company of Brian Finch (he of the Agama finchi discovery), observed an Agama with distinctive spots on the back in a rocky lava desert area about 60km north of Marsabit town. Wachira then sent the photos by phone to two experts on Kenyan reptiles, Patrick K. Malonza and Steve Spawls, and by breakfast the following day, they had exciting answers from both parties independently confirming that the species was not referable to the widely distributed Red-Headed Rock Agama (Agama lionotus). Such is today’s technology!

An effort to obtain voucher specimens was subsequently organised with Malonza and Wachira visiting Marsabit in July 2019. They found similar specimens basking in suitable microhabitats such as on top of rock piles, in rock crevices, under rocks, slabs and boulders. A few specimens were captured for further study and comparison with the other Agama species. Both morphological and morphometric characteristics were examined and indeed the Marsabit Rock Agama proved to be a new species to science!  (See Malonza PK, S. Spawls, B. Finch & A. M. Bauer 2021. A new species of the Agama lionotus Boulenger, 1896 complex (Squamata: Zootaxa 4920 (4): 543–553.

 The Marsabit Rock Agama is a relatively small species. Displaying/dominant adult males have bluish body colouration and an annulated white/blue tail and a vertebral stripe. The head is orange to yellow.

Non-displaying male: Photo by Yvonne De Jong

The females and non-displaying males have a series of regular pairs of dark spots along the vertebrae up to the tail base, an important characteristic in identifying this species. The females also have a pair of elongated orange or yellow marks on the shoulders and another on the sides near the hind limb insertion. Other dark or black marks or spots occur on the flanks. Non-displaying males lack the orange pair of marks and the bluish spots/speckling on the head present in the females. All have dark marks on the limbs.

The new species was found inhabiting dark desert lava rocks but should additionally be present in suitably similar sites in the northern frontier area.

Marsabit Rock Agama can be distinguished from the rest of the Kenyan Agama species, both in their distribution as well as the colouration of the females and non-displaying males.

New species are out there so keep an eye! Even within the widespread and commonly known species, there may be a cryptic new species.

Beryl A. Bwong (PhD.) is a Research Scientist at the Herpetology Section, Zoology Department of the National Museums of Kenya