Step Aside, Geico: Scientists Discover New Gecko Species

Photo: The West African gecko, which was originally thought to be a single species, may actually be four separate species, according to a study conducted by two UC Berkeley alumni.
Adam Leache/Photo
The West African gecko, which was originally thought to be a single species, may actually be four separate species, according to a study conducted by two UC Berkeley alumni.

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The West African gecko, originally thought to be one species, is actually four separate species that may have evolved over the last 100,000 years, according to a report written by two former UC Berkeley students.

After analyzing the DNA sequences from the geckos - which do not have obvious physical differences - Adam Leache, a 2008 UC Berkeley alumnus, and Matthew Fujita, a 2009 UC Berkeley alumnus, realized they discovered new species that had evolved due to fragmentation in the major blocks of rainforest in West and Central Africa.

"People are sometimes surprised to find out that new species are being discovered all the time," Leache said. "For amphibians, the number of described species has increased by over 60 percent in the last 15 years."

In 2003, Leache began his doctoral program at UC Berkeley and conducted research at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology on campus. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis. This fall, he will begin teaching at the University of Washington as an assistant professor of biology. Fujita is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Jim McGuire, an associate professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley who worked with both Leache and Fujita during their doctoral programs, said in an e-mail that their discovery is significant because it shows the populations of these geckos are evolving along different paths.

"Even though human beings may not be able to tell these species apart in the hand, these isolated populations have not been interacting with one another genetically for perhaps hundreds of thousands to millions of years," he said in an e-mail. "From a philosophical standpoint, this means they are operating as distinct lineages and hence species."

Leache, who graduated with a Ph.D. in integrative biology, began traveling to Africa in 2003 as a graduate student at Louisiana State University. He accompanied a group of researchers who had already established a field research program studying birds in West Africa and decided he wanted to return to the area to learn more.

"Over the course of the next five years, I had invitations to conduct surveys of National Parks and conservation areas and get funding for my research from agencies like Conservation International," he said.

Leache and Fujita used a statistical method called Bayesian species delimitation, which provided them with the probability that they were correct in naming the new species.

"We've been able to attach probabilities to our hypotheses about the number of species of these geckos, which is something that biologists have not been able to do in the past when describing new species," he said.

Leache said he plans to continue working in Africa describing new species of frogs and lizards and mentoring graduate students who are conducting studies to understand how forest fragmentation and human activity is impacting amphibian population declines.

McGuire said the two began the gecko study as a side project in West Africa and added that they have worked at the cutting edge in their fields of study.

"This discovery is actually just one of many that they have made as top-notch graduate students and now postdoctoral fellows," he said in the e-mail. "Adam and Matt were a joy to have in the lab and they have both made me extremely proud."


Contact Allie Bidwell at [email protected]

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