DNA yields new gecko species

Pictured is a cave-dwelling gecko species in Southeast Asia that is transitioning from a former life in the forest.
Pictured is a cave-dwelling gecko species in Southeast Asia that is transitioning from a former life in the forest.

March 18, 2011
By Darla Martin Tucker

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – (www.lasierra.edu) The small, brownish gecko with the big eyes and dark, wide stripes was hard to find inside its damp cave near the Malaysia-Thailand border. But herpetologist Lee Grismer, in typical do-or-die fashion, was undeterred in his quest last summer to capture the creature that he believed might be a new species.

After bellying through a muddy, wet tunnel inside the gecko’s cave home and inadvertently tumbling through darkness into a pool of clear water, the scientist found the animal, pregnant with eggs, crawling on a cave wall.

Grismer had previously found a similar gecko living outside of the cave in the forest and wanted to take a look at the two animals side by side. After capturing the elusive cave gecko, he had his chance. What he saw amazed him. The geckos looked essentially the same except the cave gecko seemed to be transitioning from a forest life to a cave existence, a metamorphic process science usually does not have the opportunity to document.

The cave gecko’s color and patterns were lighter than its tree-climbing, forest gecko cousin and seemed to be in the process of muting. Its body was thinner and had longer limbs for easier wall climbing. Grismer called it an exciting find for science and set off for the United States on July 10 with plastic crates in the plane’s cargo hold. The containers carried the little gecko and a docile yet highly poisonous, brilliant green and yellow viper that lives in the trees outside of the gecko’s cave. The viper is possibly a predator of the small animals.

In mid February, after examining the gecko’s DNA, Grismer knew his hypothesis was correct. The cave gecko appeared to be a new species, the latest of over 80 new species of pit vipers, geckos, lizards and other amphibians and reptiles he has discovered during 35 years of animal sleuthing. “It was pretty exciting too,” he said. “This one sort of crossed the threshold. It was speciation in process. …we wanted to nail it down with the DNA.” La Sierra's Molecular Systematics and Genomics Laboratory, overseen by biologist Lee Greer, conducted the DNA analysis.

Grismer and his Malaysian colleagues are writing an article about their findings to be submitted to the scientific journal Zootaxa which has frequently published Grismer’s discoveries.  The article is expected to appear before the year’s end.

In the news

C. psychedelica, a brilliantly colored gecko discovered in Southeast Asia.
C. psychedelica, a brilliantly colored gecko discovered in Southeast Asia.

In the meantime, Grismer’s species discoveries elsewhere in Asia, the result of both focused searching and of bizarre, unplanned circumstance, landed stories in National Geographic and on CNN, National Public Radio and BBC Radio.

In its December issue for the San Diego/Los Angeles region, National Geographic included an article about brilliantly-colored geckos Grismer discovered in Vietnam. Grismer and his colleagues have discovered 70 new reptiles in Southeast Asia including the bright yellow, orange and blue C. psychedelica gecko. The National Geographic Society provides grant funding for Grismer’s large lab at La Sierra’s Price Science Complex. The organization commented on Grismer’s intriguing research and contributions to the scientific community.

“Dr. Grismer's research is outstanding -- and particularly heartening to us because he reports that his study areas in Southeast Asia are brimming with biodiversity, in contrast to so many parts of the world,” said Tim Watkins, program officer for National Geographic’s Research, Conservation and Exploration group. “It’s remarkable that Grismer and his team have discovered dozens of new species in their four years of exploration there, one of them the spectacular-looking gecko from Vietnam that our magazine featured in its December 2010 issue.”

In November, CNN and other major news outlets told the intriguing story of a Vietnamese culinary delight that served up as a major scientific discovery. Grismer received word through a Vietnamese research colleague in Ho Chi Minh City, that lizards served as restaurant meals in Vung Tao Province were all female. Grismer and his son and fellow herpetologist, Jesse Grismer, hopped on a plane and flew to Hanoi. They then rode motorcycles for two days to reach a restaurant whose owner had promised to keep the reptilian menu item alive for the scientists.

“Unfortunately, the owner wound up getting drunk, and grilled them all up for his patrons... so when we got there, there was nothing left,” Grismer told CNN. The two American herpetologists finally captured about 60 of the lizards with the help of local children. Their whirlwind trip and frustrating search paid off, however, as the duo discovered an entirely new species, residing in the holding tanks of Vietnamese diners. Read more about their adventure here: http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/11/10/lizard.lunch.discovery/

Working the field

Dr. Lee Grismer, herpetologist
Dr. Lee Grismer, herpetologist

Grismer has taught biology at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. since 1994. Each summer he takes biology students on adventurous trips to the Malaysian jungles to conduct field research and search for new animals. But the journey to the mountain cave to search for the brown gecko Grismer took by himself. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “I got shot at a couple years ago near that place.”

At the end of last August he led two La Sierra students on an expedition to uninhabited, unexplored islands of Malaysia’s West and East coasts and areas around the village of Lata Tembakah. The trip’s research goals included continued studies of the four-lined, bent-toed gecko.

While the experienced herpetologist pushes into extremely remote and sometimes dangerous areas for his own fieldwork, he takes particular care with his students, leading them through safer terrain and keeping watch over their wellbeing.

“He always looks after me. I feel safe with him,” said Chelsea Johnson, a senior pre-med major who is headed for medical school. She participated last September on a research trip with Grismer to Malaysia. “He’s always [asking], ‘ok, Chelsea, are you tired? Want to take a break?’” Grismer’s faith in her ability to catch reptiles and conduct field research helped her achieve things she previously wouldn’t have thought possible, Johnson said.

Johnson and fellow biology student Kimberly Rosenberry spent two weeks in the hot, humid, densely green jungles of Malaysia with Grismer. They stayed at a hotel, ate breakfasts of roti, a flatbread in curry sauce, and Milo, a chocolate drink. They spent mornings and evenings hiking up and down the mountainous region through the humid air, often accompanied by the chatter of monkeys. During the heat of midday they documented their work in journals.

The students hunted for amphibians and reptiles and in particular, members of the species of gecko Cyrtodactylus quadriviragatus. Through observation and DNA analysis they aimed to determine variations among the geckos which are currently lumped under the one scientific name, and submit their findings to Zootaxa for potential publication. Under Grismer’s instruction, the students caught hundreds of creatures, sometimes finding them in the dark jungle night with flashlights, crawling on and under rocks, on leaves and trees, and burrowing underground. “I catch them with my hands,” Johnson said. “If they’re too high on a tree I use a blow pipe. …It’s fun.”

Grismer is a member of several societies, a much-published scientist, skilled photographer and author of two upcoming books on herpetology in Malaysia. He and son Jesse starred in Animal Planet’s 2004 documentary “Reptile Kings.” He is teaching classes at La Sierra this quarter while publishing papers about his recent finds. He’s also plotting his next hair-raising adventures to parts unknown, searching out yet more animals the modern world has never seen and taking on extreme challenges in the process.

His next stop? A remote island in the Indian Ocean known as a hideout for modern-day pirates. It is his destination for the spring quarter’s fieldwork and he’s not taking students. To improve his odds for safety, he’s rounding up an armed escort to accompany him and his colleague.

“The island is rocky, small, and covered with forest,” Grismer said. “Nothing is known from the island and I am sure we'll make some amazing discoveries after we roust out the pirates.”


PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University
Riverside, California
951.785.2460 (voice)


  • Last update on  March 31, 2011