Jewelled geckos

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 gecko, Naultinus gemmeus ("diamonds" color morph)

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus (“diamonds” color morph)

 

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus ("striped" color morph)

Jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus (“striped” color morph)

 

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.

Typical habitat of the jewelled geckos, Coprosma bushed in the Otago Peninsula

Typical habitat of the jewelled geckos, Coprosma bushed in the Otago Peninsula

 

Can you spot the gecko on the Coprosma bush?

Can you spot the gecko on the Coprosma bush?

 

Sometimes you see something bright green sitting on a bush, and you think "yay! a jewelled gecko!" Not this time. Only a Kikihia sp. cicada.

Sometimes you see something bright green sitting on a bush, and you think “yay! a jewelled gecko!” Not this time. Only a Kikihia sp. cicada.

 

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.

here
(ולגירסא לדוברי עברית הקליקו כאן)">Portrait of a juvenile jewelled gecko, Naultinus gemmeus. If you haven't seen my talking gecko, click here.

Portrait of a juvenile jewelled gecko (Naultinus gemmeus). If you haven’t seen my talking gecko, click here
(ולגירסא לדוברי עברית הקליקו כאן)

 

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.

Scared by a photographing entomologist, this jewelled gecko is trying to assess the danger from a safe hiding spot inside the coprosma bush.

Scared by a photographing entomologist, this jewelled gecko is trying to assess the danger from a safe hiding spot inside the coprosma bush.

 

I already miss the Otago Peninsula. I hope these stunning geckos will still be around when I come back in the future.

 

3 thoughts on “Jewelled geckos

  1. Great photos Gil.

    As you correctly pointed out, this species is particularly susceptible to poachers for reasons outlined in your post. The New Zealand herpetological community are particularly cautious about posting information on the web on locations of their rare lizards, as well as showing images of the species’ natural habitat. Information and images of this description are frequently used by poachers to aid in locating lizards, many of which are then captured and moved out of the country in horrible and disturbing ways…many also die in transit due to heat stress, suffocation, starvation, etc. Few poachers are caught at the border, and the penalties for being caught…although they have been increased recently…are still insufficient to deter the keenest smugglers.

    It is understandable that you (and others) want to showcase these stunning and rare lizards, however there may be ways of doing this without providing specific descriptions and providing images of habitat. Close up shots of the animals, with the Exif data removed offer equally stunning images and limit the risks of the information falling into the wrong hands. The NZ definitely don’t want to see these animals lost from the wild…where they below…and I am guessing, neither do you.

    • Thank you for your comment Dylan.
      It is indeed unfortunate that these beautiful reptiles are under such a pressure. I can also tell you that I have personally experienced the efforts to deter and prevent people from nearing and obtaining the geckos – First by interrogating me what I was doing in the area, later by filing an official complaint to my university for trespassing and then by searching frantically through my luggage in the airport when I was on my way out of the country. Needless to say, I had no intention of poaching geckos – I came to NZ to study weta.
      I respect your input, but I do not feel that the information detailed in this blog post is any different from what is already widely available on the internet. In fact, I relied on other webpages for most of the information. The most comprehensive webpage about N. gemmeus is actually on a server based in NZ, so if you are searching for the source of the information, I suggest to start there (they even have a section called “How to find a jewelled gecko”. Yup.). As for my photographs, I always try to present the animals in their natural habitat, regardless of their conservation status. Otago Peninsula is a large area, and I did not give away any specific details about the location of the gecko population. I think the chances of people finding the same population I was observing is slim.
      Also, can you pull out Exif data from my photos? If so, I would like to know how.


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