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From Shanghai Knights to gecko life: The Jackie Chan gecko among 12 new Indian species

Jackie's day gecko, Cnemaspis jackieii, named after famed film star and martial artist Jackie Chan. Image by Saunak Pal.

  • Researchers have described 12 gecko species from the Western Ghats mountain range in India, ten of which are found nowhere else.
  • The geckos were given some creative names, including a quick and nimble species named after martial arts superstar Jackie Chan, a couple named after fictional dragons, and one named after the cosmos.
  • The quest to find geckos was part of a larger survey to document the diversity of the frogs, lizards and snakes of the Western Ghats and to search for critically endangered species in the diverse region.
  • The Western Ghats have been identified as a biodiversity hotspot and there are many protected areas in the region, but a growing human population is putting pressure on the unprotected habitats through expanding urban areas, logging, dams, and the spread of agriculture.

Researchers have described 12 new gecko species from India’s Western Ghats mountains, 10 of which are found nowhere else on Earth. One particularly stealth gecko, described as “nearly impossible to catch,” was named after the famed actor and martial artist Jackie Chan.

“The new species was found to be very fast and moved rapidly on rocks and boulders, sneaking into the smallest crevices to escape when approached, reminiscent of the stunts of Jackie Chan,” Saunak Pal, a scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society who was part of the expedition and helped describe the species, told Mongabay.

Jackie’s day gecko, Cnemaspis jackieii, named after famed film star and martial artist Jackie Chan. Image by Saunak Pal.

Scientists found the Jackie’s day gecko (Cnemaspis jackieii) and 11 other new-to-science species during four years of sampling in the Western Ghats, a 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) chain of mountains running parallel to the western coast of the southern Indian peninsula. Descriptions of the geckos, as well as an updated phylogeny of the genus, have been published in the journal Zoological Research.

The new geckos belong to the genus Cnemaspis, known as the “day geckos” because of their circular eye pupils, more adapted to daytime light conditions than the slit-like pupils often seen in nocturnal geckos.

Unlike most other geckos, the day geckos aren’t great at vertical climbing. So, while some Cnemaspis can be found on trees (and a few species are completely arboreal), most dwell in caves or on the forest floor, making them more difficult for humans to find. They are also quite small, most measuring only 3 to 4 centimeters (1.2 to 1.6 inches) in length.

Habitat of the Jackie Chan gecko, a rocky stream bed in mid-elevation deciduous forest near Vairavankulam Reserve Forest. Image by Saunak Pal.

“We were looking in whatever places were available … inside caves, under fallen logs, under rocks, moving the leaf litter to see where they are found,” Pal said. “And surprisingly, we were getting these geckos where we looked.”

The expedition mostly focused on the wetter and more diverse southern portion of the Western Ghats. Between 2009 and 2014, researchers walked long transects up the mountain slopes, from the wet, green forests in the low elevations to the windswept valleys up high. Back in the lab, the team analyzed gecko DNA and used advanced scanners to look at bone structure and confirm the species were novel. Those that were got some rather creative names.

The Balerion forest gecko (Cnemaspis balerion) was named after a famous dragon from George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy novel series and hit TV show Game of Thrones. Balerion was known as “the black dread” due to the presence of black scales. Like the dragon, this new gecko species displays distinct clusters of black scales along its body.

Cnemaspis balerion, named after a dragon from the epic fantasy novel series and hit TV show “Game of Thrones.” Image by Saunak Pal.
Cnemaspis balerion was found in high-elevation, montane forests near Dattathreyapeeta in the Baba Budan Hills. Image by Saunak Pal.

Another species, Cnemaspis smaug, was also named after a dragon, this one Smaug from J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. The word “smaug” comes from the German verb smeuganan, meaning “to creep” or “to squeeze through a hole” — fitting for a species found within crevices of rocks and boulders and which also has dragon-like spikes.

The galaxy day gecko, Cnemaspis galaxia, was named for the males’ coloration, “reminiscent of the sun’s haze like yellow on the anterior and bluish-white star-like spots on a black background,” Pal told Mongabay.

And Cnemaspis wallaceii, or Wallace’s forest gecko, was named in honor of Alfred Russel Wallace, a scientist who did just as much to develop the theory of evolution as his more celebrated contemporary, Charles Darwin.

Cnemaspis smaug, Cnemaspis nimbus, and Cnemaspis galaxia are some of those species that got us very excited during the fieldwork,” Pal said in an email, “as they didn’t seem like any species that we had seen or read [about].”

All 12 of the new gecko species. A: Cnemaspis balerion; B: Cnemaspis lithophilis; C: Cnemaspis rubraoculus; D: Cnemaspis nimbus; E: Cnemaspis wallaceii; F: Cnemaspis smaug; G: Cnemaspis regalis; H: Cnemaspis galaxia; I: Cnemaspis nigriventris; J: Cnemaspis flavigularis; K: Cnemaspis palanica; L: Cnemaspis jackieii. Images courtesy of Pal et al. (2021)
The galaxy day gecko (Cnemaspis galaxia). Image by Saunak Pal. 
The royal day gecko (Cnemaspis regalis) based on the Latin word “regalis,” meaning kingly or royal, due to the head ornamented with a golden-yellow crown-like pattern in the males of this species. Image by Saunak Pal.

Cnemaspis is a large genus with three groups spread out among Africa, southeast Asia, and Sri Lanka. Zeeshan Mirza, a researcher from National Centre for Biological Sciences, India, noticed a clear geographical association among the groups and was interested in working out their evolutionary history. There was a large gap in Cnemaspis data and museum specimens from the Western Ghats, where the genus was known to have the greatest diversity, so the team decided to focus their efforts there, specifically the central and southern regions of the mountain range.

The quest to fill in the gecko gap was part of a larger survey supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). The goal was to document the diversity of the frogs, lizards and snakes of the Western Ghats and to search for critically endangered species. The researchers hoped to answer the question: are these species actually critically endangered or do we just have a lack of information from not enough sampling?

Wallace’s forest gecko, Cnemaspis wallaceii, was named in honor of scientist Alfred Russel Wallace. Image by Saunak Pal.

The Western Ghats have been identified as a biodiversity hotspot and there are many protected areas in the region. But India’s growing population means the unprotected habitats face threats from expanding urban areas, logging, dams and the spread of agriculture and plantations first established by British colonizers.

Climate change is also a concern, Pal said. As temperatures rise, some plants and animals are experiencing range shifts, or movement to higher elevations and cooler habitats. These shifts can leave the species that live at the top with little room to move, a troubling prospect for some of the higher-elevation geckos.

High in the Western Ghats are the shola grasslands, a unique ecosystem whose valleys are laden with dense forests of short, wind-stunted trees. Here, geckos were found perched on small rocks in a very limited range, between 2,000 and 2,200 meters (6,600 and 7,200 feet) above sea level.

Habitat of Cnemaspis smaug, a high-elevation, wet evergreen forest in Mathikettan Shola National Park. Image by Saunak Pal.

“The Shola grassland ecosystem is very unique, not just for these geckos, but also [for] some species of birds, frogs, and others which are endemic to these high elevation mountain tops,” Pal said “If grasslands shrink over time, it will be threatening for some of these species.”

The scientists don’t have enough information yet to determine whether the geckos are endangered, but now that they have a better understanding of the diversity, Pal said, it will be easier to figure out species’ distributions and understand their conservation status. “Before we can make this a conservation priority,” Pal said, “it helps to know what lives there.”

Citation:

Pal, S., Mirza, Z. A., Dsouza, P., & Shanker, K. (2021). Diversifying on the Ark: Multiple new endemic lineages of dwarf geckos from the Western Ghats provide insights into the systematics and biogeography of South Asian Cnemaspis (Reptilia: Squamata). Zoological Research42(6), 675-691. doi: 10.24272/j.issn.2095-8137.2021.074

Banner image of Cnemaspis jackieii, named after famed film star and martial artist Jackie Chan. Image by Saunak Pal.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_

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