The “Rediscovery” Of Anolis Proboscis, And The Evolution Of A Viral Internet News Story


If you work on Anolis lizards, there’s a good chance you’ve been asked about the recent rediscovery of the long-thought-to-be-extinct “Pinocchio Anole” within the last week. As Anole Annals reported on October 7, this story has hit the big time. After being featured on the Huffington Post, the tale of this rediscovery went viral, receiving extensive news coverage worldwide.

The catch, as most Anole Annals readers are doubtless aware, is that the Pinocchio Anole wasn’t just recently rediscovered. It was rediscovered in 2005, and has since been the subject of field studies resulting in no fewer than five published works (six if you count “Finding Anolis proboscis,” Steve Poe’s 2010 Anolis Newsletter article about finding Anolis proboscis).

What gives? How can the central claim of such a major scientific news item be fundamentally incorrect?

I propose the following hypothesis: This story evolved to its current state by good old-fashioned natural selection. I think that an initially accurate web story was repeatedly and imperfectly replicated, and that as the story was picked up by increasingly larger news outlets, important details were lost or altered during transcription (perhaps selectively, since discovery makes good copy), resulting in the evolution of an incorrect news item.

If I have things right (it’s possible I don’t know all the details), the story started with an informational advertisement from the ecotourism company Destination Ecuador.

If you read that article, it’s pretty accurate with the potential exception of a single use of the word “re-discovery” to describe the event during which the Tropical Herping team found Anolis proboscis. The use of that word is admittedly a little strange and perhaps a bit unwise, but the article makes it very clear that the actual rediscovery of the species took place in 2005, and describes a successful scientific expedition to study the species in the wild in 2010. To me the point of this article is “with our ecotourism company, you can have a chance to travel with experts to see a weird, rare, recently-rediscovered lizard species.”

Next comes an article by Douglas Main on, which appears to be the original source of the viral news item. If you read the LiveScience article, it’s worded in a way that tells a narrative of very recent rediscovery (which is not really true) without ever explicitly stating it.

For example, it says A. proboscis “was thought to be extinct for 50 years, but has been rediscovered in the cloud forests of Ecuador.” This implies, but doesn’t explicitly state, that the discovery was very recent. Main is wrong on a technical detail (the period of time it was thought to be extinct is maximally 39 years rather than 50), but it’s pretty likely that’s an unintentional error, and that Main didn’t know the species had been collected in 1966.

Main then goes on to describe how the Tropical Herping team searched for years to find the thing, but doesn’t bother to point out that many others had already found (and studied!) the species until later in the article, with the following comment: “This is only the third time scientists have spotted it since 2005, Arteaga added.” In my opinion, Main’s LiveScience article is slightly misleading, but not outright false news.

I think things became explicitly misleading when Douglas Main’s LiveScience article was republished under a different title on the Huffington Post. As far as I can tell the LiveScience and HuffPo articles are identical, but compare the titles:

Pinocchio news titles

While the LiveScience title doesn’t really tell the full straight story, it’s also not blatantly false – I can think of several benign interpretations of that title. For example, “lizard once thought extinct is the breakout star in a stunning new book on Ecuador herps.”

But the HuffPo title is just wrong, which I think makes for a more misleading piece of news, even though the article itself mentions that A. proboscis was located in 2005 and seen several times since. Additional stories deriving from the HuffPo piece (including the HuffPo video) managed to leave such critical details out entirely, leading to the viral spread of an incorrect news story (note that there’s a good bit of variation in the accuracy of the published stories, but the majority of the headlines are factually incorrect). On the one hand, all this news has gotten a lot of people excited about anoles, which is great. On the other, it’s puzzled a lot of folks who had already heard about the rediscovery of Anolis proboscis (we haven’t exactly been quiet about this species over the last few years).

In any case, none of this should detract from the fact that the rediscovery of this species is fantastic news (regardless of when it happened), nor from the fact that the Tropical Herping team has put together a truly superb book on Mindo’s reptiles and amphibians (it looks fantastic, and I’m certainly looking forward to getting my copy!). But I think it does show how seemingly minor changes in the presentation of a story can fundamentally change its meaning as it works through a news cycle.

11 thoughts on “The “Rediscovery” Of Anolis Proboscis, And The Evolution Of A Viral Internet News Story

  1. Luke,

    This is an enlightening and much needed article. I’m very glad you have made it available here.

    As you note in your first hypothesis, the story went repeated so many times that it replicated imperfectly. In the original interview, I didn’t at any time forget to mention the lizard was rediscovered in 2005 by Charlie Vogt. After that, it was studied and photographed by Mario Yánez, James Christensen, Fernando Ayala, Steve Poe, Jonathan Losos, Paolo Escobar, Ana Almendáriz, Lucas Bustamante and no less than ten other good friends from Mindo Garden, Río Bravo, El Cinto, Séptimo Paraíso and Mindo Lindo.

    However, I suppose the press deliberately did not include all of these names and replaced them with “researchers” or “photographers”. For this reason, I apologize.

    Again, thanks a lot for this post, Luke. I also appreciate your kind words about the book.

    All the best,

  2. Thanks Ale,

    No apologies necessary! You guys have frequently contributed to AA with accurate and interesting information about Ecuadorian anoles (including making original posts!), and you clearly describe what’s known about A. proboscis in your book and on your website, which is why I began to suspect something about the coverage wasn’t quite right.

    Anyway, many thanks for weighing in, and congrats again on the book!

  3. This is just one demonstration of why the market-based model of HuffingtonPost, which produces tons of content with little editing and little pay for the writers, can easily lead to as much disinformation as information.

  4. For completeness, I wanted to add a couple final details about the origins of the news coverage (from an email conversation with author Lucas Bustamante). According to Lucas, the Destination Ecuador advertisers saw Tropical Herping’s pictures of Anolis proboscis (the very same ones they posted on Anole Annals, actually!) and decided to do a piece on it. They interviewed the TH team and posted their piece. The TH team didn’t talk to any other journalists until well after the story blew up, so I think the LiveScience piece must have been based entirely on the Destination Ecuador piece (it’s of course possible/likely that Destination Ecuador shopped the story around, rather than LiveScience simply coming across it). Lucas also mentioned that only a few news outlets eventually contacted TH directly for information about the story. I think it’s interesting that Nat Geo was one of these, and their piece was pretty detailed and accurate as a result. Thanks Lucas for the additional details!

  5. My impression is that factual inaccuracies are becoming increasingly common in popular press write-ups about scientific research. I would guess that this is a result of the commercial nature of the outlets, which favors exaggeration (under the natural selection model). Still, the lack of fact checking is sometimes shocking, particularly given how easy it is to check facts on the internet. Here’s a striking example: A quick search of the internet reveals that leopard predation on chimps is well-documented and has been known for a long time.

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