Some creatures have developed truly awesome camouflage: the owl butterfly, the leafy sea dragon, which looks like seaweed, or the self-explanatory stick insects, for example. One of the coolest are the leaf-tailed geckos, a group of animals in the genus Uroplatus that only live on the island of Madagascar. The animals have patterns that blend them perfectly into the local foliage, but most impressive are their tails, which resemble a rotting leaf, complete with discolored spots and little nicks and tears. Now, researchers have described a new species of these hard-to-see critters—and it may already be under threat from the pet trade.
The newly discovered species comes from low altitude areas of Marojejy National Park on Madagascar’s northeastern tip. During the day, the leaf-tailed geckos are difficult to spot. They tend to hang out in dead leaves, covering themselves with their deceptive tail and sticking their limbs out like twigs. At night, however, they come alive, actively hunting in the dense rainforest—that's when researchers conduct their surveys.
Shreya Dasgupta at Mongabay reports Fanomezana Ratsoavina, a herpetologist at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar, collected the new species in 2003 during a field study, but at the time did not know it was new to science since it resembles another well-known species, the satanic leaf-tailed gecko. In May 2016, another herpetologist from Antananarivo who was conducting a survey in the park that involved collecting geckos noticed that some of the specimens were slightly larger than normal as well.
Jake Buehler at Earther reports that in November 2016, researchers collected a few more specimens and began analyzing them, finding that the 4-inch-long geckos are 50 percent larger than their satanic brethren and the interior of their mouth is scarlet red. Genetic analysis also confirmed the gecko is a new species, called Uroplatus finaritra, detailed in the journal Zootaxa. Finaritra is a Malagasy word meaning “healthy and happy,” which, Dasgupta reports, the researchers say describes their “delight in describing this splendid and exceptionally large species from a clade of generally small-sized leaf-tailed geckos.”
While it’s great to add another unique species to the list of life on Earth, Mark Scherz, study co-author and herpetologist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, says the new species may already be in danger. While its primary habitat is in protected land, unlike those of many species on the island, it’s still imperiled. That’s because the satanic leaf-tailed gecko is often collected from the wild for the pet trade, and it’s difficult for collectors and herpetology enthusiasts to tell the two species apart.
“A young individual of U. finaritra can only be distinguished from U. phantasticus adults by checking the color of its mouth,” Scherz tells Dasgupta. “This is not an easy thing to do, requires stress to the animals, and could potentially hurt them irreparably if performed forcefully by a non-expert.”
Scherz says that some satanic geckos sold as pets are described as “giant” or “large” varieties of the species, and the researchers suspect those are actually U. finaritra. While inspecting every gecko shipped from Madagascar is not possible, the team tells Buehler that they suggest every reptile and amphibian shipment from the island includes information on where they animals were collected. Since the new species is believed to occur in a range north of the satanic leaf-tailed gecko, any animals collected from that region could be flagged as being likely misidentified.
“While discovering a new species is very exciting, we also need to think about its conservation,” Ratsoavina tells Dasgupta. “If the natural population of Uroplatus finaritra from Marojejy National Park stays intact without further habitat loss and illegal exploitation activities to supply the pet trade, this species will remain safe.”