Groundbreaking new species paper to aid jungle conservation
Dec. 4, 2012
By Darla Martin Tucker
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – (www.lasierra.edu) The subject line of the email to La Sierra University herpetologist Lee Grismer read, “you’re not going to believe this.”
A much-published, much-traveled scientist with more than 100 new species discoveries under his belt, Grismer nearly fell over when he read the rest of the message. It came from Perry L. Wood, Grimser’s former student now a doctoral candidate at Brigham Young University. The email confirmed the herpetologist’s hunch that seven, nearly identical Bent-toed Southeast Asian geckos, previously believed to be one species, were in fact seven separate species descending from a single common ancestor. Wood used DNA analyses to make the determination. “We were absolutely astonished,” said Grismer. “It makes you feel like you’re doing something right because I had sort of predicted this.”
Wood and Grismer differentiated the geckos through the use of Wood’s DNA sequencing and Grismer’s anatomical observations, a corroborative assessment method called integrative taxonomy that is relatively new in taxonomy, the science of describing and naming species. The anatomical analysis included examination of color patterns and measurements of limbs, tail, snout and other parts of the animal.
On Oct. 18, prestigious international journal Zootaxa published the group’s findings in a 54-page paper written by Grismer, chair of La Sierra’s biology department, with contributions from 11 other scientists from four countries, including Grismer’s herpetologist son, Jesse, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, and Wood who graduated from La Sierra’s biology program in 2006 with 24 published papers.
The Zootaxa publication is groundbreaking in its use of integrative taxonomy to differentiate animals that look very much alike, but that exist as separate species. Its significant findings will aid not only science, but will be used to bolster the efforts of conservation groups in Southeast Asia as they lobby the government to slow development and illegal logging of pristine jungles that are home to these animals.
Grismer’s work “might help certain areas in the future, especially when a development such as a forest clearance is required to have an [environmental impact] report,” said Maketab Mohamed, council president of the Malaysian Nature Society in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “In an actual sense, no new data or no knowledge of new species is good for the developers,” he said.
Grismer and his colleagues discovered the animals over the past seven years in the remote jungles of Southeast Asia ranging from southern Thailand south of the Isthmus of Kra, southward through Peninsular Malaysia. The geckos had been classified as one species under the scientific name Cyrtodactylus pulchellus, but now have seven additional names.
Geckos are a type of lizard. Grismer first noted slight anatomical differences between the seven gecko groups while compiling data for his 728-page milestone book, “Lizards of Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and their Adjacent Archipelagos” published last year. “Usually it’s an indication we’re dealing with more than one species,” said the scientist. He had gecko specimens preserved in formaline in jars in his lab, but needed additional tissue samples for DNA data to confirm his hypothesis.
A team of long-time Malaysian colleagues form the Science University of Malaysia and the National University of Malaysia helped Grismer secure government permits to enter previously unexplored forest. They later assisted with the collection of specimens and data analysis for the Zootaxa paper.
Grismer’s team, at times accompanied by La Sierra biology students, plucked the geckos from within deep jungle caves, cloud forests, and off islands, enduring cold mud, blood-sucking leeches, exposure to malaria and other dangers. In all, they made nine trips focused on specific regions of the Thai-Malay Peninsula.
Using an integrative taxonomic approach to uncover the cryptic gecko lineages underscores what Grismer already believed—“there’s a whole lot of hidden biodiversity we haven’t tapped into yet,” he said. “It’s going to sky rocket.” In fact two of Grismer’s students over the past two years used an integrative taxonomic analysis to confirm two new snake species and a different new gecko species.
Grismer believes such technology is essential in broadening conservation, a passionate cause underlying his research. “If we do not understand the true diversity of nature, there’s no way to conserve it,” he said.
Data about the presence of new species is provided to state parks and conservation groups who in turn use the information to lobby the government for conservation measures. “This gives them a lot of tangible power,” said Grismer. For example, Grismer’s new species documentation helped stop the development of an airport on Tioman Island in 2007, and is helping to mitigate the building of a tourist cable car line up the side of the Bintang Mountain Range in northwestern Peninsular Malaysia.
As Grismer explains, “if we knowingly let some little lizard go extinct, we’re sending a clear, unmistakable message to governments and lay people that letting some species go extinct is acceptable,” he said. “If certain key species are allowed to die out, it could disrupt major ecosystems and in so doing, destroy communities. The general public has real concerns about extinction and unfortunately some scientists are giving only party-line answers.”