Taxonomy of Micronesian monitor lizards
In the light of recent phylogenetic studies, we re-assess the taxonomy and biogeography of the Varanus populations distributed in the Micronesian islands of Palau, the Western Carolines and the Marianas. Whether these populations are of natural origin or human introductions has long been contentious, but no study has fully resolved that question. Here, we present molecular and morphological evidence that monitor lizards of the Varanus indicus Group reached both Palau and the Mariana Islands sometime in the late Pleistocene and subsequently differentiated into two separate species endemic to each geographical region. One species is confined to the Mariana Islands, and for these populations, we revalidate the name V. tsukamotoi Kishida, 1929. The other species has a disjunct distribution in Palau, the Western Carolines and Sarigan Island in the Northern Marianas and is herein described as V. bennetti sp. nov. Both species are most closely allied to each other, V. lirungensis and V. rainerguentheri, suggesting that colonization of Micronesia took place from the Moluccas. We discuss the biogeographic distributions of both species in the light of the likely colonization mechanism and previous arguments for human introduction, and we argue that bounties for Palauan populations are ill-advised and plans for eradication of some other populations must first demonstrate that they are, in fact, introduced and not native.