Their results will be published on May 16 in Science Advances.
The green-blooded lizards, up to a foot (30 cm) long, live in lowland tropical forests and highlands on New Guinea, an island shared by Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Originally discovered in 1969, the unusual skinks were assigned to a genus called Prasinohaema, which literally means "green blood" in Greek.
"Understanding the underlying physiological changes that have allowed these lizards to remain jaundice-free may translate to non-traditional approaches to specific health problems", Rodriguez concluded.
"There's so much green pigment in the blood that it overshadows the brilliant crimson coloration of red blood cells", Austin pointed out.
A high concentration of biliverdin leads to jaundice among most animals. It can cause jaundice, but surprisingly, the lizards do not appear harmed, despite hosting 40 times the level of the toxin compared to what would be harmful to humans.
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"We were excited by the complex history of these animals and surprised by the breadth of green-blooded lineages across lizards", study lead researcher Zachary Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at Louisiana State University, said in a statement. Essentially, the Prasinohaema lizards are all green on the inside, explains Austin. Not only their blood has this color, but also their tongue, bones, and muscles.
Moreover, green-blooded skinks likely evolved from a red-blooded ancestor, the researchers found. Only one species, Prasinohaema virens, lays eggs, LiveScience notes.
Green blood likely emerged independently in various lizards, which suggests that green blood may have an adaptive value.
To understand the evolutionary history of the green-colored blood, Rodriguez and his colleagues did a genetic analysis of 51 species of skink, including six species that have green blood (two of which were previously unknown to science).
Co-author of the study Susan Perkins, a curator and professor at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and the Division of Invertebrate Zoology, American Museum of Natural History, thinks that the new findings could have important medical implications.
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This is exactly why we should stay away from the odd lizard.
Possible explanations include some sort of protection mechanism against malaria, to which lizards are very susceptible.
Previous research has demonstrated that bile pigment can act as an antioxidant, terminating free radicals. As a similar liver product, bilirubin, is known to be toxic to human malaria parasites, the group is also conducting studies to see how the green bile pigment from these lizards affects malaria and other parasites.
Scientists remain uncertain about the advantage green blood may provide the lizards.
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