As It Happens

N.Z. scientists finally track down geckos so rare, it wasn't clear they still existed

Ben Barr says Cupola geckos are "the best animals ever" — but he worried he'd never get to see one up close. After years of searching, he saw some last month.

Lizard expert Ben Barr 'over the moon' about discovery of Cupola geckos in New Zealand national park

A Cupola gecko, spotted in the mountainous region of the Nelson Lakes national park in New Zealand. The creature is so rare and elusive, scientists weren't even sure if it still existed. (N.Z. Department of Conservation)

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Ben Barr says Cupola geckos are "the best animals ever" — but he worried he'd never get to see one up close.

That's because the New Zealand gecko is so elusive that, until now, there had only ever been two recorded sightings of it, 39 years apart. In fact, New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC) classified the species as "data deficient" — which means there was no way to be certain it even still existed.

Unil Barr and his colleagues found several of them.

"Oh, they're beautiful. They're a gecko, so they've got big beautiful eyes and a cheeky little grin," Barr, a freelance ecologist who works with the DOC, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"To actually hold something that you thought was possibly gone forever, and to actually hold it and see it there alive, staring back at you, breathing, was quite an amazing sort of feeling."

Barr says he's loved lizards since he was a kid and for years has been obsessed with finding the rare Cupola geckos. Many of New Zealand's native lizards, amphibians, bugs and birds have been devastated by invasive predator species, he said, so it's important to document and protect the the ones that have managed to survive.

Since 2019, he has led three expeditions to New Zealand's Nelson Lakes national park — the last recorded place a Cuploa gecko was seen in 2007 — to no avail. Undeterred, the team went back again earlier this month. 

They searched high and low, with little information about the kind of terrain in which the little creature makes its home. 

"It was essentially a little bit of a needle in the haystack," Barr said. "I was getting to the point where I'm starting to lose a little bit of hope — and then, yeah, we found them."

New Zealand ecologist Ben Barr holds a Cupola gecko he found. (N.Z. Department of Conservation )

Herpetologist Marieke Lettink found the first one high in the mountains — a juvenile female. 

"I kind of lost it a little bit and gave her a big hug and sort of screamed and jumped around a wee bit. And then, of course, I wanted to have a look at it because, you know, it's been the object of my thoughts for quite some time," Barr said. "We were over the moon."

The team took some photographs and measurements before letting the little lizard go. Barr was elated, but still determined to find one himself.

He got his big moment just two kilometres away when he overturned a rock and found an adult male. 

"I lifted the rock … and there it was. So I picked it up and yeah, it was amazing," he said. "We're talking rock about 15,563. I've lifted that many rocks I kind of don't even have fingerprints anymore."

The team found four geckos in total, including a pregnant female, but were only able to fully document three of them. One darted away before they could really observe it.

Still, the discovery is an amazing step for the species, says Barr. Now scientists know that these geckos are still alive, they're breeding and they live in alpine regions.

"I had kind of almost written it off. I thought, 'I don't think this thing exists anymore,' because we've spent so much time looking for it and so many different people had been looking for it. So to find it is huge. We know the types of habitat, which allows us to manage it and those places," Barr said.

"That they exist is an incredible, incredible thing."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. 

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