Dragons in our midst: phyloforensics of illegally traded Philippine water monitors
We provide a phylogenetic and population genetic evaluation of the illegal pet and bush meat trade of monitor lizards in the Philippines. We use a molecular dataset assembled from vouchered samples with known localities throughout the country, as a reference for statistical phylogenetic, population genetic, and DNA barcoding analyses of genetic material obtained during a three year survey of the Manila pet trade. Our results provide the first genetic evaluation of a major Southeast Asian city’s illegal trade in monitors and allow us to establish several important conclusions regarding actual, versus reported, origins of Manila’s black market Varanus. Monitor lizards are clearly transported throughout the archipelago for trade; we identified genotypes from areas surrounding Manila, the distinct Bicol faunal subregion of Luzon, Mindanao Island, the Visayan islands, islands of the Romblon Province, the Babuyan islands, and Mindoro Island. Numerous species are involved, including multiple endemic Philippine taxa, the threatened Gray’s monitor (Varanus olivaceus), and the presumably non-Philippine rough-neck monitor (Varanus rudicollis). Our results suggest that traders frequently and deliberately misrepresent the provenance of traded animals, in an apparent effort to increase their perceived market value.