New leaf-tail gecko. Photo copyright Tim Laman / National Geographic
Researchers from James Cook University and National Geographic discovered three new herp species — a cryptic leaf-tail gecko, a colorful skink, and a frog — during an expedition to northeastern Australia. The species are described in three papers published in October in the journal Zootaxa.
In March, a team led by Conrad Hoskin from James Cook University and photographer Tim Laman of National Geographic and Harvard University explored a remote mountain range on Cape Melville. It was the first time scientists had surveyed the forest that grows among boulders on the summit of the range.
Within days the team had identified the two lizards and frog among with several other species that may prove new to science.
“Finding three new, obviously distinct vertebrates would be surprising enough in somewhere poorly explored like New Guinea, let alone in Australia, a country we think we’ve explored pretty well”, said Hoskin in a statement. “These species are restricted to the upland rainforest and boulder-fields of Cape Melville. They’ve been isolated there for millennia, evolving into distinct species in their unique rocky environment.”
Camouflage artist, The Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko. Photo copyright Tim Laman / National Geographic
Conrad Hoskin with the new gecko. Photo copyright Tim Laman / National Geographic
The team was especially excited about the discovery of the leaf-tail gecko, which is dubbed Saltuarius eximius, meaning ‘exceptional’, ‘extraordinary’ or ‘exquisite’.
“The second I saw the gecko I knew it was a new species. Everything about it was obviously distinct”, said Hoskin.
“That this gecko was hidden away in a small patch of rainforest on top of Cape Melville is truly remarkable,” added gecko paper co-author Patrick Couper, Curator of Reptiles and Frogs at the Queensland Museum. “The Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko is the strangest new species to come across my desk in 26 years working as a professional herpetologist. I doubt that another new reptile of this size and distinctiveness will be found in a hurry, if ever again, in Australia.
Like the leaf-tail geckos of Madagascar, Saltuarius eximius is a master of camouflage, blending in with its surroundings during the day to emerge as a various insect-predator at night.
Cape Melville Shade Skink. Photo copyright Conrad Hoskin
Conrad Hoskin with the Cape Melville Shade Skink. Photo copyright Tim Laman / National Geographic
The other newly discovered lizard is quite different. Unlike the gecko, the Cape Melville Shade Skink (Saproscincus saltus) is diminutive and active during the day. But it is nonetheless “highly distinct” from its relatives from the south.
The frog is also rather unusual. Named the Blotched Boulder-frog (Cophixalus petrophilus), the species spends the dry season hidden in the cool and moist environment under the boulders. During the rainy season it emerges to breed in the rain.
Blotched Boulder-frog. Photo copyright Tim Laman / National Geographic
“You might wonder how a frog’s tadpoles can live in a ‘hollow’ boulder-field with no water sitting around.” said Hoskin. “The answer is that the eggs are laid in moist rock cracks and the tadpoles develop within the eggs, guarded by the male, until fully-formed froglets hatch out.”
Hoskin added that he expects the habitat to yield more biological surprises.
“The top of Cape Melville is a lost world. Finding these new species up there is the discovery of a life time – I’m still amazed and buzzing from it.” said Dr Hoskin.
Boulders and forest on Cape Melville. Photos copyright Tim Laman / National Geographic