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The Glory of Geckoes

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 24, 2012

Peter Naskrecki has a fine blog item today at his Smaller Minority photo blog.  It’s about his work as a naturalist and photographer visiting Madagascar.  Here’s an excerpt:

When I first held the Giant Leaf tailed gecko (U. fimbriatus) in my hand after catching it in the rainforest of northern Madagascar, it felt as if I were holding a living, breathing beanie baby. It was the size of small puppy, and its skin was velvet-soft and warm. The gecko’s hands grasped my fingers the way a newborn holds its parent’s finger – softly but firmly at the same time. Having this animal sit in my hand was one of the most pleasant tactile experiences of my life.

Giant leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus), proudly displaying its mouth full of teeth (Photo by Piotr Naskrecki)

Of course, Leaf tailed geckos are not sweet, fuzzy toys – like all geckos, they are efficient killing machines, predators capable of catching and swallowing remarkably large prey. The smiley face of the gecko hides incredibly sharp teeth, and lots of them. Leaf tailed geckos have the highest number of teeth of any amniote (which includes most of terrestrial vertebrates) – their lower jaw can have 97-148, while the upper between 112 and 169. That’s, potentially, 317 teeth! To put it in perspective, other geckos have between 100-180 teeth, while our puny human jaws carry only 32 teeth.

Leaf tail geckos are high masters of camouflage, and this is one of the reasons why so little is known about their biology (Photo by Piotr Naskrecki)

Why so many? Nobody knows for sure, because virtually nothing is known about their feeding behavior in the wild. In captivity they will eat almost anything that moves, but in their native habitat, the wet and humid forests of Madagascar, they may be targeting frogs, which are a remarkably species-rich and abundant group in that part of the world. A huge number of small, sharp teeth is likely to help hold such slippery prey. A higher than usual number of teeth may also be very useful in capturing moths, whose scale-covered bodies are as difficult to grasp as those of wet amphibians.

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