Master of disguise: new species of leaf-tailed gecko discovered in Madagascar

21 Aug 2023

An international team of researchers led by zoologist Frank Glaw has described a bizarre leaf-tailed gecko from northern Madagascar and given it a new scientific name: Uroplatus garamaso.

Leaf-tailed geckos are masters of disguise and are often quite peculiar looking. Some species have flaps of skin around their body and head along with a flattened tail. During the day, they rest on tree trunks with their head pointed down and with their flaps of skin spread out, blending so seamlessly into their environment that they can scarcely be detected. At nighttime, they wake up and roam the branches on the search for prey.

Uroplatus garamaso inhabits mostly dry forests in the north of the island of Madagascar.

Uroplatus garamaso inhabits mostly dry forests in the north of the island of Madagascar.

© Jörn Köhler

“When we discovered the animals for the first time in the year 2000, we already suspected they belonged to an unknown species,” says Dr. Frank Glaw, curator for reptiles and amphibians at the Bavarian State Collection for Zoology, LMU biologist, and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Salamandra. “But the scientific description was a tricky business. It took many years before we had gathered enough information to securely identify them as a new species.” The researchers collected comprehensive information on the genetics, morphology, and distribution of the animals. Several expeditions were undertaken to northern Madagascar to expand knowledge about this new species.

One of the challenges faced by the team was the pronounced similarity between the new gecko Uroplatus garamaso and another species, Uroplatus henkeli. “This is often the case with the reptiles of Madagascar,” explains Dr. Jörn Köhler from the Hessian State Museum in Darmstadt. “There are many so-called ‘cryptic species,’ which sometimes languish for years before taxonomic work can be completed on them.” However, the authors discovered some characteristics that distinguish the two species from each other. “An important key to unambiguous morphological differentiation was the discovery that the tongue tip is blackish in U. henkeli, while it is pink in U. garamaso,” says Dr. Philipp-Sebastian Gehring from Bielefeld University. Furthermore, the new species is 20 cm in length, making it somewhat smaller than U. henkeli, and has a narrower tail as well.

“The new species is the latest in a whole series of Uroplatus geckos that have been discovered in Madagascar over the past few years,” adds Dr. Fanomezana Ratsoavina from the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar, who did her doctoral thesis on leaf-tailed geckos.

“Although we’ve almost completed the taxonomic inventory of the genus, this is just the beginning of our understanding of its evolution and ecology,” says Dr. Mark D. Scherz, curator for herpetology at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. “The various color characteristics in their mouths, which are so useful for identifying the various species, may well have a function that we’re totally unaware of at present. There’s a lot we still don’t know about these geckos and that we need to research – including their further evolutionary relationships and their behavior.”

Frank Glaw, Jörn Köhler, Fanomezana M. Ratsoavina, Achille P. Raselimanana, Angelica Crottini, Philip-Sebastian Gehring, Wolfgang Böhme, Mark D. Scherz & Miguel Vences: A new large-sized species of leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus) from northern Madagascar. Salamandra, 2023.

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