Monday, 28 October 2013
On the second day of a four-day trek to Cape Melville a team led by Dr Conrad Hoskin, from James Cook University, and Dr Tim Laman, from Harvard University, discovered a “bizarre” looking leaf-tailed gecko, a golden-coloured skink and a boulder-dwelling frog — species that have been isolated from their closest cousins for millions of years.
“We’re talking about animals that are ancient — they would have been around in the rainforest of Gondwana… rainforest that’s been there for all time,” said Dr Hoskin.
Accessible only by helicopter, the upland plateau area is a 1.8 by 1.8 mile patch which sits on a “monstrous wall” of “millions of giant, piled up boulders the size of houses and cars”. The whole mountain range is around nine miles long and three wide.
Having known of the range for more than a decade, Dr Hoskin’s interest was reignited when the advent of Google Earth allowed him to view it from above. But nothing could prepare him for finally setting foot there and seeing an “incredible rainforest” with “good earth” and “clear, flowing streams”.
“I was just walking around along the ridge line and there was this small lizard, a skink, that was something completely new,” he said.
While its evolutionary relatives sneak around in leaf litter, this particular skink, golden in colour, hunts insects by jumping around on mossy boulder fields.
Later that day the team made their second discovery, “beautiful blotched frogs with orange in their legs”, something Dr Hoskin had fleetingly seen previously but had been unable to identify.
Named the Blotched Boulder-frog, the small creature lives in cool and moist conditions deep under the boulder-field during the dry season, before emerging during the wet summer season to feed and breed in the rain. But it needs no pond — it can lay its eggs in the moist cracks of rocks, where tadpoles develop into fully formed froglets before hatching.
“And then, coming back by night, we saw an incredible leaf-tailed gecko.”
It was the discovery of the trip. “This thing was mind-blowing, completely bizarre. It’s really big, around eight inches with long spindly legs and huge eyes.”
Patrick Couper, Curator of Reptiles and Frogs at the Queensland Museum, and collaborator on the gecko’s description, said the newly-named Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko was the “strangest new species to come across my desk in 26 years working as a professional herpetologist”.
“That this gecko was hidden away in a small patch of rainforest on top of Cape Melville is truly remarkable. What makes it even more remarkable is that two other totally new vertebrates were found at the same time,” he said.