‘Similar to having a baby, the euphoria’: rediscovery of rare gecko delights experts

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After two years spent turning over thousands of rocks in search of the Cupola gecko, New Zealand lizard expert Ben Barr had been starting to wonder: “Am I ever going to find this thing?”

But this month, in the Nelson Lakes national park at the top of the South Island, he lifted another rock – and there it was. “I was totally euphoric. I was over the moon. I couldn’t believe it. I was screaming and yelling, it was incredible. I almost cried.”

Conservationists are celebrating the rediscovery as “incredibly significant”, with the elusive reptile not seen for more than a decade – and only twice ever.

The Cupola gecko was first documented in 1968, in scrub above the Cupola Hut in the Travers Range. Nearly 40 years after that first sighting, one was spotted in another part of the Nelson Lakes national park in 2007.

But with no confirmation of its survival since, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) had classified the species as “data deficient”, meaning it was simply not possible to say whether it survived or not.

Barr, a Whangarei-based herpetologist and a science adviser for DOC’s Lizard Technical Advisory Group, had led the charge to find it, leading three trips of about a week long to the Nelson Lakes since 2019.

Others have undertaken more without success. “People have been looking for a bloody long time,” Barr said.

On his expedition earlier this month, he succeeded in finding not just one gecko – but four. “It had been such a buildup: I’ve spent a lot of time looking for it: hours and hours and hours, and days, and months, and years … It was very similar to having a baby, the euphoria.”

Herpetologist Ben Barr and Cupola gecko

So rarely glimpsed was the Cupola gecko, Barr did not know precisely what he was looking for. “Nobody really knew exactly what it looks like – no scientists had actually ever held it and looked at it … It’s always been a bit of an enigma, talked about down dark alleyways like: ‘Is that thing still around? Who knows?'”

After concluding his last trip in 2019 empty-handed, Barr had been gravely concerned that the species was already extinct, preyed on by rodents. “You feel like you’re racing the pests because they’re on the job 24/7 … I was pretty anxious about trying to find the last one before a rat did.”

But with finance from DOC’s biodiversity fund that had been earmarked for threatened and data-deficient species, Barr was able to persevere – and triumph. He says his success reflects the importance of dedicating resources to flora and fauna that may already be lost. “This thing is really on the precipice of going extinct, so we’ve got to try to find it ASAP.”

“It’s an incredibly significant discovery,” said Jo Monks, a science adviser for DOC’s biodiversity group. “There have been many, many trips by very well qualified, well respected herpetologists since [2007] and nobody has found them again until this summer.

“To have had a few animals in the hand is really exciting.”

Bolstered by the confirmation that individual Cupola geckos survive, DOC is now working with local iwi to ramp up efforts to find more so that the species can be better understood and protected.

Once the extent of its distribution is known, Monks says, it may be reclassified from data-deficient. “I am quite hopeful.”

Though DOC has a record of bringing endangered birds back from the brink, much less is known about how to recover reptiles – and a high proportion of New Zealand’s endemic species of gecko and skink are threatened or at risk.

Monks says the biodiversity funding allocated in the 2018 budget has proved key in improving outcomes for lesser-known, “less sexy” species. Barr had been granted $15,000 (GBP7,600) over four years to hunt for the Cupola gecko.

“It’s not much money, yet we’ve made massive gains and insights … and the same story is true for other data-deficient species.”

The Okarito gecko was similarly re-discovered, after decades without being sighted, on the west coast of the South Island last year.

“There are so many places in the country where herpetologists just haven’t been, and you have to be there with a dedicated lizard project,” said Monks. “You can so easily walk past these highly significant populations – I have done.”

On this most recent trip, Barr also found another gecko that genetic testing may reveal to be a previously undiscovered species. “It does show that there are still a lot of mysteries out there, to be found – and we’re not going to find them by sitting in offices.

“We’ve got to invest in finding these data-deficient species and also putting a bit of effort into finding ones we don’t know about yet.”

In the meantime, his success will spur on those hoping for other recoveries and revelations from New Zealand’s bush.

Barr says his primary motive, in scouring scrubland for a long-lost lizard, had been to save the species from extinction. “But I’m not gonna lie – the excitement of finding it, the dopamine hit, is fairly satisfying.”

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