Discovery of a new Gecko
Emmanuel Van Heygen
The Exo Terra team embarked on a quest in the heart of the bamboo forests that clothe the Ampisindava peninsula of Madagascar. Our target: a tiny, elusive green day gecko that had eluded our lenses just a few days before.
Madagascar, the land of mystique and wonder, has always been revered for its unparalleled biodiversity. Every step on this island is a testament to nature’s grandeur. And there, in the midst of the towering bamboo of Ampisindava, was our stage, where nature’s drama would unfold.
As the morning sun painted the sky in shades of gold, the bamboo leaves glistened with fresh dewdrops. This serene setting, however, wasn’t the ideal playground for our cold-blooded subjects. The day geckos needed the sun’s warmth to shake off the night’s chill. Their fleeting emergence in this brief window of time made our task even more challenging.
I recall vividly the palpable pulse of the forest, how it swung between the crisp coolness of the night and the tropical warmth of the day. The ever-changing rhythms, from monsoonal deluges to the quieter, drier spells, added layers to our expedition’s narrative.
That morning, as we journeyed deeper, the forest was alive with stories. A Phelsuma grandis caught our attention, its vibrant colors shimmering in the morning sun. Elsewhere, two male Phelsuma laticauda engaged in a territorial display, their passionate duel reflecting nature’s raw intensity. Not too far, I was mesmerized by the sight of a gentle Phelsuma seippi, delicately milking honeydew from a planthopper nymph—a beautiful ballet of coexistence right before my eyes.
But amidst these fascinating encounters, a tiny flash of golden hue caught our attention. Before my fingers could twitch toward my camera, the mysterious creature vanished into the dense bamboo leaves. The fleeting glimpse suggested it was a juvenile, and its minuscule size hinted at the possibility of it being a newly hatched Phelsuma dubia.
Exercising patience, a trait I’ve honed over countless expeditions, I, along with the Exo Terra team, held our position near the bamboo patch. Time seemed to stretch, but our perseverance was rewarded. The little reptile, a veritable master of camouflage, re-emerged, bathing in the gentle sunlight. We had a collective realization — this wasn’t just any gecko. We might have stumbled upon an undiscovered treasure.
Our suspicions solidified when its adult counterpart, as green as the bamboo it darted between, made an appearance. We were standing at the edge of a monumental discovery. Our dedicated documentation process ensued, and later, thanks to the renowned herpetologist Achim Lerner, this gecko was formally described and named Phelsuma vanheygeni – what an honor!
Emmanuel Van Heygen
“Madagascar, the land of mystique and wonder, has always been revered for its unparalleled biodiversity. Every step on this island is a testament to nature’s grandeur. “
The day's adventures guided us from Ankify to Ampopo, along the shores of the Ampasindava Peninsula. As we approached, dolphins frolicked near our boat, offering a spectacle of nature's dance. The evening saw us under the open skies of Ampopo's virgin beach, with a crackling campfire warding off nature's nocturnal visitors.
With camp set up, our scientific endeavors began with the creation of pitfall traps to capture ground-dwelling reptiles and amphibians. Though a single tiny frog was all that was caught, the surrounding bamboo forests held more surprises.
Once we reached the bamboo forests, we were again stunned by the density of day geckos. In the internal bamboo forests of the Ampasindava peninsular, Phelsuma vanheygeni is very common. It shares its habitat with Phelsuma klemmeri, Phelsuma seippi, Phelsuma laticauda and the bigger Phelsuma madagascariensis grandis. Phelsuma vanheygeni is one of the smaller day gecko species that is well adapted to living in bamboo.
Achim Lerner's initial description of Phelsuma vanheygeni in the 'Phelsuma' journal, courtesy of the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles.
The Exo Terra expedition left Paris for one of the remotest and inhospitable parts of the ‘Red Island’: Madagascar. It took the expedition team four flights, a 10-hour ocean trip and several hours by pirogue through the natural canals of the dense mangrove forests to finally install the first campsite. Although it was supposed to be the dry season, it wasn’t. Tents had to be erected in the pouring rain, and the team’s equipment was drenched. With everything soaked, the inside-out tent’s only remaining purpose was protection against the millions of biting mosquitoes. Madagascar is one of the world’s high-risk areas for Malaria, a mosquito-transmitted and often fatal disease.
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