Lizard specimen being returned to Jamaica ‘transformational’, researchers say

A lizard specimen on its way back to its Jamaican homeland from a Scottish university collection 170 years after it was taken has been described as “transformational” by researchers.

The Jamaican giant galliwasp, a species now presumed extinct, is thought to have been collected in the 1850s and became part of the University of Glasgow collections in 1888.

A joint team from the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) has travelled to Glasgow to retrieve the specimen, in what is said to be the first repatriation of a natural history specimen in the Caribbean.

Dr Shani Roper, curator of the University of the West Indies, said her team was “absolutely excited” about the return.

“This specific lizard is considered the largest of this species, larger than the Haitian galliwasp, which exists, so we’re talking about a specimen that’s been extinct approximately since the 1840s or 1850s.

“The specimen is an adult galliwasp, so it’s actually potentially older than 170 years, and one of the things that we were talking about, because we’re so absolutely excited about this, is we actually don’t know the lifespan of an adult galliwasp because none of our scientists have ever actually handled or seen one unless they have come to the United Kingdom.

“The repatriation of this specimen is transformational to how we conduct research, how we develop knowledge, and also just in terms of providing scholars with access to what the specimen looks like.”

She explained that until now the only evidence of the animal available in Jamaica has been a reproduction of an image produced by Hans Sloane, a British collector, who would have seen the creature when he travelled to Jamaica in the 1670s.

“[It’s] distressing when your only image of what is supposed to be the largest of the [galliwasp] family that you have a plate that’s actually, now that we’ve seen the galliwasp, the drawing isn’t proportionate to what the specimen looked like.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how transformational it is.”

She explained that as well as aiding researchers, the specimen – which will go on display in the Jamaican Natural History Museum – will also boost public understanding in a country where most people are “deathly afraid of lizards”.

The Jamaican giant galliwasp
The Jamaican giant galliwasp is now presumed extinct (Jane Barlow/PA)

“That is why even though the transfer is between the University of Glasgow and the University of the West Indies, the galliwasp’s new home will be the Natural History Museum of Jamaica … because their museum and so their work is really around public education.”

She added of the specimen: “It’s not the most photogenic in the scheme of things, but what it symbolises is really beyond what a lot of us would have thought of in terms of what is possible for repatriation and public education and engagement.”

Dr Roper also said both sides had learned a lot during the process of repatriating a natural history specimen.

She said: “For us, this repatriation project is really also about knowledge co-production because by engaging in this repatriation process the Hunterian learned things. They actually identified other specimens in their collection, not realising that they had them.

“Then, for us, it really forced us to think about return in terms of the infrastructure for return, and how we go about doing it for natural history specimens as opposed to how it would happen for material culture items.”

The team from UWI and IOJ will return to Jamaica with the lizard specimen on April 24.

An official handover ceremony will be held there and the lizard will be deposited in the Natural History Museum of Jamaica on permanent loan in the national flora and fauna collection for safekeeping and to ensure it is accessible to all Jamaicans.

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