The Galápagos Islands are already famous for their biodiversity. And amidst the already unique reptiles, scientists have announced the discovery of three new geckos. What’s cool is that one of them lives on a volcano.
During an expedition to Wolf Volcano, the most remote of the five volcanoes on Isabela, the largest island of the Galápagos archipelago, A team of U.S. and Ecuadorian herpetologists found one of the leaf-toed geckos
“It takes a long, very expensive expedition, and once you get there you have to climb the slopes of the volcano, which takes a lot of effort, and a big team,” said Alejandro Arteaga, herpetologist and director of science for the Ecuador-based research and ecotourism group Tropical Herping.
Tropical Herping led a three-year effort to document every Galápagos reptile for the production of a first-ever field guide to the reptiles of the Ecuadorian archipelago. When the group went on an expedition to Wolf Volcano, their goal was not to look for geckos, but rather to photograph the volcano’s pink land iguana, a species only formally described about a decade ago.
However, researchers believed that other reptiles in the area might also be novel species, so they decided to track down some geckos as well. And they were proved right. They named the new species Sabin’s leaf-toed gecko, or Phyllodactylus andysabini, after American philanthropist Andrew Sabin
Documentation and research like these are very important to the islands. Estimatedly, 48 reptile species are either threatened or already endangered, and knowing more about them and where they live can help scientists and governments shape more effective conservation strategies. For instance, P. andysabini’s entire range is just 96 square miles, making it vulnerable to lava flows.
Arteaga said, “When you combine this with the fact that there are still introduced predators in the area, especially cats and black rats. It definitely qualifies as endangered.”
With this discovery, it’s safe to say that Wolf Volcano or northern Isabela is the home of Sabin’s leaf-toed gecko, the pink iguana, and Chelonoidis becki, a species of giant tortoise also isolated to Wolf Volcano. “Why northern Isabela is so special is a question no one can answer [yet],” said Arteaga.
Other geckos in the islands
The second new species from Isabela, called Simpson’s leaf-toed gecko, Phyllodactylus simpsoni, was first identified as a species following a 2014 expedition led by Ecuadorian herpetologist Omar Torres-Carvajal.
Since he never published a formal description of the gecko, Arteaga and colleagues picked up where he left off, naming the species after Nigel Simpson, one of the founders of the Ecuadorian conservation organization Fundación Jocotoco, who is also an expedition sponsors.
The third new species is called Mares leaf-toed gecko, Phyllodactylus maresi. Now this one isn’t somehow new, because it was described in 1973 as a subspecies of Phyllodactylus galapagensis. However, the team’s sophisticated genetic sequencing has revealed the gecko is indeed its own species.
Tony Gamble, a herpetologist at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said that it wasn’t surprising that these geckos went undetected for so long. The reason is rather simple. Tourists and researchers alike are generally only allowed within the islands’ protected areas during the day, and geckos are nocturnal.
“As soon as all the scientists and tourists leave, the sun goes down and the geckos come out. Based on their biology, [geckos] are particularly recalcitrant to study in the Galápagos,” said Gamble.
Spreading more awareness on these geckos and all Galápagos reptiles is actually why the scientists published Reptiles of the Galápagos both in print and as a free online download, rather than in a traditional scientific journal.
“One of our responsibilities is to translate science. This is the future of environmental conservation,” said Lucas Bustamante, photography director for Tropical Herping,adding that many of the book’s funders made science communication a top priority for the research.
Not just geckos in Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands aren’t the only ones with happy news. Although, in this story, the new species is already gone for a long, long time. But hey, new discovery means new knowledge and scientific understanding, right?
In Kansas, there’s a huge new species of prehistoric shark that has been discovered. Scientists reported that the predator could have grown to almost 7 meters long and that its young would cannibalize their siblings while still in the womb. Talk about prehistoric barbarism.
But no, actually. Cannibalizing is a common occurrence in Sharks, even in the modern species. The scientists said newborn sharks belonging to this species would be about 1 meter long, and this embryos would cannibalize their siblings while in the womb. This, the researchers say, shows the behavior had evolved by the Late Cretaceous.
The scientists, Kenshu Shimada, from Chicago’s DePaul University, and Michael J. Everhart, from Fort Hays State University, identified the new species from 134 teeth, 61 vertebrae, scales and calcified cartilage found in rocks in the Carlile Formation.
The remains date to the Late Cretaceous period, between 66 and 100 million years ago. At this time, North America was split in two by an ancient waterway, known as the Western Interior Seaway.
The species belongs to the genus Cretodus, of which there were four known species. The newly discovered predator has been named C. houghtonorum and details of its discovery were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“This new shark differs from all other known species in the genus by having a distinct array of teeth that are uniquely shaped. Our analysis showed that the teeth of this shark are measurably different (size and shape) from any other known species of Cretodus and that justified the naming of the new species,” said Everhart in a statement.
According to Shimada and Everhart, C. houghtonorum was a large species. Their specimen died when it was about 22 years old, but they believe the species could live to 51.
The C. houghtonorum fossils were found near the dorsal fins of a hybodont, as well as the teeth of squalicorax. Both of these were smaller species of shark. The latter grows to about 2 meters in length on average. Based on the condition of these remains, Shimada and Everhart suggest that C. houghtonorum died shortly after eating the hybodont, and then the squalicorax came along and ate the larger shark’s carcass. But then the squalicorax died too.
Shimada and Everhart also noted how C. houghtonorum would likely have lived alongside Cretoxyrhina mantelli, one of the largest sharks of the Late Cretaceous. This species could grow over 7 meters in length and would have been an apex predator of the time.