Researchers originally thought the gecko was from New Zealand based on similar physical characteristics–like toe pads and color patterns – to the country’s geckos. In addition, it resembled a lizard known in folklore from the Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand. Herpetologists felt so confident in their hypothesis that they scientifically named it Hoplodactylus delcourti. Hoplodactylus refers to geckos originating from New Zealand and Delcourt is the last name of the museum worker who rediscovered it.
So did this giant gecko, which is presumed to be extinct, come from New Zealand?
To answer this question, Heinicke, his co-researchers from across the nation and his UM-Dearborn undergraduate student research assistants created a dataset that included DNA from 160 species of gecko, essentially creating a family tree. Heinicke then dropped the giant gecko’s DNA sample into the dataset to see where it falls.
They learned the mystery gecko is not from New Zealand. Instead, it’s related to those large — but not as giant — geckos from New Caledonia. The team’s findings were recently published in Scientific Reports and featured in ScienceNews. Heinicke and his colleagues are proposing a change in the lizard’s scientific name. They have dubbed it Gigarcanum, or “giant mystery.”
The importance of this new finding? Heinicke said it helps us understand how different species evolve.
“It’s really nice to live on a planet that has so much variety,” he said. “One of the big questions in the evolution of biology is what are the big factors that promote the evolution of diversity? What causes organisms to change and differentiate from one another? Isolation, when there is a lack of competition, seems to be one of these things. We want to better understand these evolutionary processes because they help explain where biodiversity comes from.”
“Now that we have identified its closest living cousins, we can start to investigate how it adapted to become so large compared to other geckos,” he added.
Also, if there are any more giant geckos out there, researchers and reptile enthusiasts now know where to look.
Article by Sarah Tuxbury and contributor Kristin Palm.