Common gecko
Image: Sabine Bernert ©

Introduction

Geckos have broad heads with large bulging eyes, definite necks, and soft, velvety-looking skin which is covered in very small, granular scales.

In this section

Jewelled green gecko. Photo copyright: DOC (DOC USE ONLY).
Jewelled green gecko

There are at least 39 species of gecko in New Zealand. However, only 18 of these have been formally described, and further discoveries of new species are still very likely as we learn more about them.

These species belong to two genera:

Hoplodactylus

11 formally described species and an estimated 20 species still to be described.

Colour: Mostly grey or brown, with mottled, striped or banded patterns. However, the harlequin gecko, H. rakiurae, is often very brightly coloured.

Duvaucels gecko. Photo: Dick Veitch.
Duvaucel’s gecko, Hen Island

Habits: Mainly nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), although some species, such as the harlequin gecko, are also active during the day.

Naultinus

7 formally described species and 1 yet to be described).

Colour: Usually bright green, but sometimes bright yellow. However, the adult males of some South Island species are grey or brown.

Habits: Diurnal (active during the day).

Facts

  • Geckos are able to vocalise and many New Zealand species produce a chirping sound. Green geckos are quite loud for their size and produce a sound more like a ‘bark’
  • Geckos have ‘sticky’ feet: their toes are covered with microscopic hairs that allow them to climb sheer surfaces and even walk upside down across the ceiling.
  • Unlike skinks, geckos cannot blink and must lick their eyes to keep them moist.
  • Geckos are able to ‘drop’ (autotomise) their tails. This is a predator defence mechanism—the tail continues to thrash around whilst the gecko makes its escape; the tail then regrows over the next few years.
  • Geckos are found throughout New Zealand on both main islands and most offshore islands. They inhabit a wide range of altitudes (from sea level to c. 2200 m) and a variety of habitat types (forest and scrub, tussock grasslands, rock outcrops and scree).
  • In New Zealand, geckos are extremely slow breeding and long-lived: some geckos have been shown to live for at least 42 years in the wild.
  • Duvaucel’s gecko (H. duvaucelii) is the largest living gecko in New Zealand, and one of the biggest geckos in the world, attaining sizes of up to160 mm snout-vent length and 120 g.
  • New Zealand geckos are unusual in that they give birth to live young rather than laying eggs; the only other geckos that do this live in New Caledonia.
  • New Zealand geckos are omnivores. They mainly eat insects, e.g. moths and flies. However, they also enjoy the berries of plants such as Coprosma spp. and the nectar of some flowers.

Threat status

Striped gecko (Hoplodactylus stephensi) from the Sounds Area. Photo copyright: Mike Meads and Bruce Thomas (DOC USE ONLY).
Striped gecko from the Sounds Area

All New Zealand geckos are fully protected, meaning that they may only be handled, collected or kept in captivity under permit. It is illegal to deliberately harm them.

Twenty-one species or subspecies are threatened; two of these (the Coromandel population of the striped gecko H. stephensi and Hoplodactylus sp. “Open Bay Islands gecko”) have been ranked as Nationally Critical by DOC. One species is now extinct (Kawekaweau; H. delcourti).

Specific threats

There are two main threats to geckos: predation and habitat destruction.

All New Zealand geckos are vulnerable to mammalian predation. Predators include mice, rats, hedgehogs, weasels, stoats, ferrets, cats, possums and pigs.

Since most of these predators are active at night and hunt on the ground, species that are large, terrestrial and/or nocturnal are more at risk than species that are smaller, arboreal (tree-dwelling) and/or diurnal. Small predators can follow the larger species but not the smaller ones into the crevices where they shelter and sleep.

Although habitat destruction is at a much lower level than it has been in the past, it is still a threat to New Zealand geckos. Enormous areas of forest have been cleared and burned. Tussock grasslands are still being burned, ploughed and converted to pasture, threatening geckos that live in rock outcrops or screes in the area.

Our work

Nelson green gecko (Naultinus stellatus). Photo copyright: B W Thomas. (DOC USE ONLY).
Nelson green gecko, Station Creek, Nelson Lakes

DOC has eradicated mammalian pests from several offshore islands. This has not only greatly helped local gecko populations, but has also allowed geckos from elsewhere to be safely translocated to islands, establishing new populations.

An example is the successful translocation of Pacific geckos (H. pacificus) to Lady Alice Island in the Hen and Chickens group following the eradication of the Pacific rat (kiore).

Some species can survive on islands in tiny numbers in safe refuges such as steep cliffs, and take many years after pest eradication to increase in numbers and spread out enough to become detectable.

For example, common geckos (H. maculatus) were found on Tiritiri Matangi Island for the first time in 2004, after kiore were eradicated in 1993.

DOC continues to work on gaining a better understanding of what species we have, where they are found and how healthy their populations are.

There are three large research projects being undertaken on New Zealand geckos:

Developing monitoring techniques for shrubland geckos

Shrublands provide habitat for up to 64 lizard species nationwide; arboreal geckos make up a large component of this diversity. To be able to carry out long-term research and monitoring of these lizard populations, and to evaluate the success of conservation management activities, we need to develop suitable data collection and management systems.

Harlequin geckos are being used as a model species. This species inhabits extreme climates in the southern parts of New Zealand and Stewart Island/Rakiura, and as a consequence has a ‘slow’ life history profile (pregnancy spans 3-4 years, and individuals are very long-lived).

This means that it will have a heightened sensitivity to threats affecting adults, and can thus act as a national indicator for biodiversity decline.

Harelquin Gecko, Stewart Island. Photo: B W Thomas.
Harlequin gecko (Hoplodactylus
rakiurae), Stewart Island/Rakiura

Lizard distribution across New Zealand

The current distribution of New Zealand lizards is not only influenced by factors such as biogeography and geology, but also by land clearance and mammalian predator invasions. These latter factors can be mitigated through management practices.

In this project, we will use our current knowledge to predict the extent of probable past distributions of the entire New Zealand lizard fauna. We will then compare these in detail with the currently known distributions of several species.

This will allow us to identify those species that can respond to management and act as useful indicators of the effectiveness of management.

Gecko conservation management units

We cannot conserve species if we do not know that they exist, or if we cannot tell them apart from other, related species. More than half of the known species of New Zealand geckos have not been formally described.

This project will lead to the formal description and naming of these species, and the identification of features that will allow their reliable classification.

You can help

Report gecko sightings

Jewelled Green Gecko, Otago Peninsula. Photo: Rod Morris.
Jewelled gecko on Coprosma, Otago Peninsula

Report all gecko sightings to the nearest DOC office. In particular, report sightings of geckos in alpine areas.

If possible, note down the exact location where the gecko was sighted, including details of the surrounding habitat, and its colour and approximate size. A photo is always of great value.

Provide habitat for geckos

You can encourage geckos to visit your garden by providing heaps of rocks and large areas of dense, divaricating shrubs eg. Coprosma spp. and Muehlenbeckia spp. These will not only provide safe cover, but will also provide fruit and attract insects to feed on. 

Help stop gecko smuggling

Geckos are being hunted for the illegal international reptile trade. You can help stop this trade by reporting suspicious activities and vehicle licence numbers to the 24 hour hotline, 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).

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