The psychedelic rock gecko is one of the rarest reptiles on Earth


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 8 July 2019
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Now this is a seriously special lizard.

THE RARE PSYCHEDELIC rock gecko (Cnemaspis psychedelica) is found only on the tiny Hon Khoai Island in southern Vietnam’s Rach Gia Bay – which spans 8 square km – and Hon Tuong Isle, an area of just 300 square metres.

With an estimated 500 mature individuals left in the wild, these endangered lizards are threatened by habitat loss and predation. A major predator is the invasive long-tailed macaque, known as one of the most geographically widespread and abundant non-human primate species in the world (and a species Australia is very worried about).

It’s also a firm favourite of the pet trade, because this little gecko clearly ended up with one of nature’s weirdest colour palettes.

Its got daffodil yellow splattered across its snout and head. And as you can see in the image below, its belly, feet, and tail are the brightest orange. It looks like it’s wearing golden boots. Everywhere else, its got a beautiful lavender hue that almost looks lit from within, and there’s a hint of green above its eyes.

(Image credit: Lee Grismer)

Discovered by scientists just nine years ago, the species gained rapid notoriety among trappers and smugglers, and since 2013, has been offered for sale in Europe on a regular basis. Pairs can go for as much as €3,000 (almost AU$5,000).

Like the similarly charismatic earless monitor lizard of Borneo, the psychedelic rock gecko has become an unwitting poster child of wildlife trafficking.

But there’s so much more to this lizard than its status on the black market.

While its so far been very little studied, we know that it differs from the other Southeast Asian species of ‘day geckos’ (genus: Cnemaspis) in that both the females and the males boast the same bright colour pattern, and even the juveniles have it – they don’t have to wait for adulthood to reach fully fledged psychedelia.

Not ones for camouflaging, they’re more comfortable sunbathing on the loose granite rocks scattered throughout the Vietnamese rainforest, or on trees or branches, rather than in the substrate of the forest floor.

You can see what they look like in the wilds of Hon Khoai Island below:

(Image credit: Ngo HN, Nguyen TQ, Nguyen TV, van Schingen M, Ziegler T (2018)

With more than 100 known species, Cnemaspis is one of the most diverse genera of geckos in the world. While few can match the weirdness of the psychedelic rock gecko’s colouring, there are many that are amazing in the own right.

Here’s an unidentified species of Cnemaspis from Kerala in India:

(Image credit: Dhaval Momaya/Wikimedia)

And here’s Cnemaspis phuketensis, endemic to southern Thailand, and sporting a rather eerie black colouring:

(Image credit: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia)

For more amazing gecko species, check out the sleek cat gecko, also from Southeast Asia, and closer to home, there’s the golden-tailed gecko, with eyes you’ll never forget.