Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Geckos in the Spotlight: volunteering on Mana Island

A trip to Mana Island, which is free from mammal predators and pests, is enough to show how incredible the lizard life of ancient New Zealand would have been. Mana is not only free from rats, cats, hedgehogs and stoats; there are also no mice here.
Mana Island is a DOC scientific reserve
On a sunny day, skinks dart across the path, slip in and out of bird burrows, sun themselves on rocks. Geckos meanwhile are hiding somewhere warm and dark waiting for the night. Special 'lizard lounges' provide a warm spot which allows visitors to see large gecko families hanging out together.

Mana Island is therefore ideal for projects that aim to save remnant or rare lizard populations. A translocation of Ngahere or bush geckos from a mainland quarry is a recent project. (Read more about the transfer of the geckos here.) I was part of a team of Friends of Mana Island volunteers which went over to monitor the Ngahere geckos and see how they are getting on in their new habitat.

We found a good number hiding in special gecko hides. Scientist Trent Bell from Eco Gecko was happy with the numbers found. Each was measured and weighed as well as photographed for identification purposes. It seems the pattern on each gecko is unique, which means they can be identified from close-up photographs.
Ngahere gecko
Also hiding were many weta and native leaf-veined slugs. I had never seen a leaf-veined slug before! According to Te Ara: the encyclopedia of New Zealand there are about 30 different species of leaf-veined slugs, I don't know which species we found.
Weta disappearing out of sight & lower right a leaf-veined slug

Leaf-veined slug
We went out later at night when the geckos are active to see how many we could find. This involved using spotlights and paying close attention. This is a common gecko caught in the spotlight.
Raukawa or common gecko

Hands on with geckos
This is the second project I've worked on involving lizards. They are fun to work with because they are small and reasonably easy to handle. Although the first time I worked with them I was too hesitant handling them and got bitten quite a bit. Geckos look so soft and delicate you wouldn't realise they have such sharp needle-like teeth! I soon learned to be a bit more decisive! At the same time of course, you have to be gentle as these are protected species.
Looking soft and innocent, geckos have sharp teeth
Some Gecko facts:
  • Geckos and skinks are types of lizards.
  • Along with tuatara, they are the only native reptiles that we have in New Zealand.
  • Geckos have baggy looking skin and a distinct neck, but skinks are smooth and shiny and have no obvious neck.
  • Reptiles are ectotherms which means they need an external heat source such as sunlight to warm them up. 
  • The green gecko is active during the day, whereas the various brown geckos are active at night.
Transfer or translocate? Which word to use?
A friend asked me why I was using the word 'translocation' to describe the Fairy Prion Project I volunteered on. 'Was it scientific jargon?' she asked. Why not say 'transfer' or even more simply 'move'?
I found the answer on the Department of Conservation website. 'Translocation' refers to the whole process which can involve several 'transfers'. The term also covers planning and monitoring. So the gecko monitoring work I did on Mana was part of the translocation process, although the geckos had already been transferred there.

More information on Mana and Geckos:
Friends of Mana Island
Eco Gecko Consultants (includes image gallery of geckos)
Department of Conservation
News Release about the lizard transfer

Another blog post about volunteering on Mana Island
Feeding Fairy Prions

Information for young children
"In the Garden: explore and discover the New Zealand backyard" includes information on geckos and skinks and the difference between them.
"In the Bush: explore and discover New Zealand's native forests" has information about geckos and tuatara.