Site icon Conservation news

Myanmar caves yield up 19 new gecko species

  • Scientists have discovered 19 new species of strikingly patterned geckos within a small area of 90 kilometers by 50 kilometers in Myanmar.
  • These geckos are most likely restricted to the limestone hills and towers within which they were found.
  • Conservationists hope that these newly discovered animals can serve as “ambassadors” for the limestone hills, especially since many of these hills are being mined by cement companies.

In a tiny, remote region of Myanmar, scientists have discovered 19 new species of strikingly patterned geckos.

These lizards were found in isolated limestone hills and towers (known as karst) within a small area of 90 kilometers by 50 kilometers (56 miles by 31 miles), and are most likely restricted to these limestone blocks, the researchers say.

“I was quite surprised both by the numbers but even more so by the close proximity of the species to one another,” Lee Grismer of La Sierra University in California, who led the surveys, told Mongabay. “Nothing like this has ever been discovered in this group. The published official count now is 15 and I will submit a paper soon describing another four.”

The 15 officially described species include three new dwarf geckos from the genus Hemiphyllodactylus, reported in the Journal of Natural History. The list also includes 12 new species of bent-toed geckos from the genus Cyrtodactylus, described in a study that will soon be published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

A new species of Cyrtodactylus, a bent-toed gecko discovered in Myanmar. Photo by L. Lee Grismer.

Finding these geckos wasn’t easy.

Guided by people from local villages, forest officials and Buddhist monks, Grismer and his team spent several nights searching for geckos in thick, remote karst forests and dark limestone caves.

Not all the newly described geckos were unknown. The monks who occupied monasteries associated with some of the caves might have seen some of the lizards now and then, Grismer said. “But some of the other caves were unoccupied and we had to hike quite a distance to get to them,” he added.

Sometimes their hikes took them through treacherous regions held by armed insurgents.

The research team walking toward Chaunghanakwa, a limestone karst. Photo by L. Lee Grismer.

The team has named one of the newly discovered dwarf geckos Hemiphyllodactylus tonywhitteni after Tony Whitten of Fauna & Flora International, a UK-based conservation nonprofit that supported Grismer’s surveys. H. tonywhitteni is known only from Phapant Cave, a complex of three caves along a narrow river in Shan State.

Whitten “championed a broad range of conservation efforts in Indonesia and the Asia Pacific for well over a quarter of a century,” the authors write in the Journal of Natural History paper. “His tireless efforts to conserve and help manage karst ecosystems have been a great inspiration to the senior author [Lee Grismer].”

“It is always terribly flattering to learn that there is a species with your name attached,” Whitten told Mongabay. “I would add my hope that this amazing discovery, and more to come, will increase people’s understanding of, and concern for, karst systems and their biodiversity which until recently had little or no profile.”

Hemiphyllodactylus montawaensis, a new species of a dwarf gecko, discovered in Myanmar. Photo by L. Lee Grismer.

The discovery of the new geckos also shows that these limestone blocks harbor an “unprecedented degree of biodiversity” of not just invertebrates like snails or insects, but of backboned animals as well, according to Grismer. The isolated limestone hills act as islands within a sea of rice paddies, he said, making them the only places left for forest-adapted species to survive.

Whitten hopes that these newly discovered animals can serve as “ambassadors” for the limestone hills, especially since many of these hills are being mined. In fact, some of the limestone blocks within the team’s research were being mined by cement companies and smaller village operations at the time of the surveys.

“When assessments are made of these areas for development projects it’s simply not enough to look at mammals and birds which can walk, jump or fly away from danger, and may not be that dependent on the hills anyway,” Whitten said. “One rather has to give attention to the geckos and cave fauna whose ranges are limited to these hills and caves. To not do so can lead to extinctions.”

Grismer’s team will soon start surveying Kayah State in eastern Myanmar, an area bordering Thailand that has never been explored for its reptiles,  according to a press release by La Sierra University.

Another new species of Cyrtodactylus discovered in Myanmar. Photo by L. Lee Grismer.

Citation: