“Cape Melville is an amazing place — countless boulders the size of houses piled up hundreds of meters high as a huge range. … I thought if there is a decent amount of rainforest up there and it has persisted through time, then surely it has exciting species in it.” — Conrad Hoskin (Photo by Conrad Hoskin)

Among the top-ten species identified in 2013 and recognized by the International Institute for Species Exploration was the leaf-tailed gecko. The creature was found and described in a scholarly journal, Zootaxa, by Conrad Hoskin of the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, and Patrick Couper of Queensland Museum.

The Washington Post asked Hoskin how he did it. He described the adventure in the following e-mail: 

“I discovered the Cape Melville Leaf-tailed gecko (Saltuarius eximius) in early 2013 at Cape Melville, a remote mountain range on Cape York in Northeastern Australia. I visited Cape Melville by a long and rough dirt road in the early 2000s and stood at the base wanting to be up the top.

“Cape Melville is an amazing place — countless boulders the size of houses piled up hundreds of meters high as a huge range. Standing at the bottom I could see a thin layer of rainforest fringing the top. I thought if there is a decent amount of rainforest up there and it has persisted through time, then surely it has exciting species in it. The surrounding area is very dry, so any rainforest creature that has survived through time up there has probably been isolated an extremely long time. The boulder-fields, however, are treacherous and climbing them is very hard, particularly with a pack full of gear, food, water, etc. I had a go at it on that trip but it was very hot and slow and I didn’t make it up into the rainforest. I was determined to get up there some day. 

“Over a decade later I found myself flying in by helicopter with National Geographic photographer Dr. Tim Laman (we had teed the trip up over complimentary interests in Cape York biodiversity).

“Clearing the boulder-field slopes it became immediately apparent that there was indeed plenty of rainforest on top — a fairly flat plateau shrouded in mist. And indeed unknown creatures lurked.

“Within a couple of days we had discovered a number of new vertebrate species. The gecko was discovered when we were climbing up a rocky gully on the second night.

“I was scanning ahead and I could see gecko eye-shine (a soft red reflection in my head-torch beam) on the side of a tree that was growing out of the boulders. The way it was sitting motionless, head-down, got me instantly excited that it might be a leaf-tail. I scrambled up the boulders and, rounding the tree trunk, there in the torch beam was an obviously distinct, amazing looking gecko! It was extremely exciting.

“We found a number of others at that site over a couple of nights but not at other sites we surveyed in the area. It probably has a very small distribution, but I need to do more surveys to determine the distribution and population size.

“The Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko is highly distinct. It is large (about 20 cm long including the elaborate tail) and is bizarrely skinny, with long spindly legs and huge eyes. We only know the basics about it. It hides among boulders by day, emerging to hunt at night on surface boulders and adjacent tree trunks. It is superbly camouflaged and at night it sits motionless, waiting to ambush passing insects and spiders.

“In total, we discovered 5 new vertebrate species at Cape Melville last year: the gecko, several lizards known as skinks, and a frog that lives deep down in the boulder-fields. Add to this a number of other endemic species (i.e., species found nowhere else) that were described in past decades and it is clear that Cape Melville is a very special place that has had a long and independent history.”


The leaf-tailed gecko. (Conrad Hoskin)

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