A couple of days ago I left the Otago Peninsula, a place that was a home for me for the last two weeks. While I am still trying to get used to being on the road again, I thought I’d share with you my second “must-see” NZ animal: the jewelled gecko.
The jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus, is endemic to the South Island of New Zealand. They are beautiful vivid green in color with yellow and white markings. Some individuals have “diamond” markings, while others have two yellow stripes running along the sides of their back. Combinations of the two color patterns also occur. There are two main subgroups of jewelled geckos: those living in Otago Peninsula and those living in the Banks Peninsula. One main difference between the groups is the color of the males: in Banks Peninsula they are grey with yellow markings while in Otago Peninsula both sexes are green.
I can honestly say these are among the most beautiful geckos I have ever seen, and only members of genus Phelsuma from Madagascar and Lygodactylus williamsi from Tanzania come close to this.
Jewelled geckos are active during the day and are usually found in dense spiny bushes such as Coprosma species, but also in gorse and manuka bushes. They are insectivores and feed mainly on flies, moths and beetles. The geckos are pretty well camouflaged despite their bright green color – it took me a few hours to find my first gecko basking in the sun. Because they are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and diurnal, jewelled geckos regulate their body temperature by moving in and out of the shadows provided by the plants they live in. They are excellent climbers, and use their strong tail like another leg. For this reason they are less likely to drop their tail (a defense mechanism against predators) than other geckos.
Along with the New Caledonian rough-snouted gecko (Rhacodactylus trachyrhynchus), New Zealand Geckos are the only geckos in the world to give birth to live young. Surprisingly, the gestation period is similar to that of humans, and usually lasts eight to nine months. Gecko live-births are not exactly like mammalian live births: the baby geckos develop in the eggs which remain in the oviduct within the female’s body until they hatch prior to birth. This process is known as ovoviviparity (now try to picture me saying that). Usually two “twin-geckos” are born and it takes three years for them to reach sexual maturity.
Loss of habitat is the largest threat to the jewelled gecko, followed by rats, cats, stoats and other introduced predators. Contrary to expectation, a study found that grazing of the vegetation by sheep can actually help the geckos survive, by clearing grass (which is often associated with high rodent densities) and making the Coprosma bushes more compact and thus harder to access for these predators. However unfortunately, the main enemy of these jewels is us humans. This attractive gecko is highly prized on the illegal pet market, with a single gecko worth as much as $8000. Naultinus gemmeus is classified as a threatened species by the Department of Conservation, they are highly protected and it is illegal to capture or disturb them. Even low levels of poaching can place small populations of jewelled gecko at risk of extinction. Lately, the fines and periods of imprisonment for anyone attempting to poach them were increased. As a personal experience I can say that even I was thoroughly inquired for my business when I was taking photographs of the geckos. I can only wish that every threatened species in the world in need for conservation had gotten the same treatment.
I already miss the Otago Peninsula. I hope these stunning geckos will still be around when I come back in the future.