Colourful ancient gecko discovered in Australian desert

By Amy Middleton 16 November 2016
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
A ‘relic’ gecko species with no close living relatives has been found in Central Australia.

A BIG, COLOURFUL gecko with no living relatives has been living in Central Australia for at least 10 million years, unbeknownst to science.

Dr Paul Oliver, a biologist at The Australian National University in Canberra, was investigating an oddity in the gecko family when he made the discovery.

“We knew from work done long ago there was population of velvet geckos that looked a bit funny from that part of the world,” he said. “But we didn’t have the genetic samples we needed to test its relationships to other species.”

Paul and his research partner Peter McDonald, from the Department of Land Resource Management in Alice Springs, analysed samples from recent field work in the Central Australian ranges, to solve the mystery of the different-looking velvet geckoes.

New gecko species

The new gecko species has been named Oedura luritja after the Aboriginal people from the region. (Image: Stephen Zozaya)

Velvet gecko surprise discovery

To their surprise, it turned out be a completely new species of velvet gecko. They described Oedura luritja – named after the Aboriginal people from the region – in Royal Society Open Science.

“It’s a completely new, relatively large, and quite colourful species that lives in some of the most visited parks in Central Australia,” Paul told Australian Geographic.

“It’s a great example of how something very different and undiscovered can be hiding under our noses.”

Paul says the new species has long been confused with a similar-looking species that lives nearby, Oedura cincta, but in fact the two are not closely related at all.

“Genetic information tells us that this gecko has no close living relatives – it is a relic species left behind in the ranges of Central Australia,” Paul explained. “So far, it’s one of the oldest and most divergent relic species in the Central Uplands that we know of.”

New gecko species identified

A purple lizard with distinctive spots and bands, Oedura luritja hangs out in popular national parks including Palm Valley and Kings Canyon.

The researchers suspect it may have isolated from its relatives as long as 10 million years ago, when a severe bout of climate change started the widespread shift of the Australian landscape towards desert.

“What is really neat about this gecko is that our estimate for when it split from other species is similar to a timeframe estimated by other researchers for when Australia may have first been undergoing major aridification.”

Because O. luritja made its home in ancient rocks with deep crevices, rather than the trees inhabited by its relatives, when Australia dried out its shelter remained, while its cousins ran out of places to live.

Paul said that although lizard diversity is his specialty, the find was a surprise.

“After 10 years of working on lizard and frog diversity I try not to expect anything anymore – they always end up surprising you! But we certainly did not expect it to be an ancient relic with no obvious relatives,” he said.