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Source: Department of Conservation

By Ben Barr, Science Advisor for DOC’s Lizard Technical Advisory Group

Gaaaaaaaaah! [g-aaarh!]
1. an exclamation used to express disappointment after you think you’ve found a lizard under a rock, but it is just a stick.

“Gaaaaaaaah!” Ben Barr after a day looking for Cupola geckos

You know when you lose your car keys, and you’re late for an important date, and the clock is ticking, and the traffic is getting worse, and you’re getting flustered, and it feels… well… really (insert expletive) urgent? Yeah nah that’s not urgent. Let me tell you about urgent. Urgent is not being able to find the ‘Data Deficient’ Cupola gecko in the hills of the Nelson Lakes National Park. You probably should’ve started looking a couple of decades ago so you’re already up against it, and the clock that is ticking is a relentless collection of heartless killers that are hairy, bitey, and stingy. From the geckos perspective, some of your enemies can sniff you out and hunt you at night, the others can fly and hunt you in swarms by day. They are programmed to kill you, eat you, and erase you from the planet forever. That’s urgent my friend.

Lizard Hunters

The story of the Cupola gecko started in 1968 when a young scientist by the name of John Pearson disturbed one while setting snare traps high in the Nelson mountains. Knowing it would be of interest to his lizard friends, he eagerly popped it in his Swanndri pocket and later showed it to his friends who happily announced it was a brand new species. “Cheeehooooo!” they said. But this would be the first and last time a Cupola gecko was seen in the second millennium. The elation and excitement withered and died only to be replaced with apathy and languor.

Is this cupola gecko country…?
…or that?
Maybe they are in here….?
…. or there?

The word “cheeeeeehoooooo!” would not be uttered again until 2007, when a photograph of a Cupola gecko found its way to the DOC offices from Robert Waddell who spotted and photographed a female Cupola gecko in a river flat nearby John’s first sighting.  “Team Lizard” regrouped and sent multiple expeditions into the hills to triumphantly locate and rescue this species from the clutches of extinction.  But alas! Four battle weary groups returned from the hills with nothing to show for themselves except for a new word in their vocabulary… “Gaaaaaaaaah!”

The ‘Data Deficient’ Cupola gecko captured on camera by Robert Waddell (©).

So what is it about the Cupola gecko that makes them so hard to find? Are they extinct, are they just really good at hiding, are they really super rare, or are they super rare AND really good at hiding? That is what we’re trying to figure out with new Data Deficient funding for the species.  At this stage we expect that they are both rare AND hard to find.  Based on the two confirmed sightings and a couple of other promising leads it is likely that the gecko lives in beech forest but has the ability to live low in the alpine zone. Like all New Zealand lizards, it was probably once fairly abundant in its preferred habitat. But these habitats are to varying degrees now also home to wasps, rodents, and stoats and they periodically reach plague proportions due to beech and tussock masting events. There is no doubt that this ongoing pressure will have taken its toll on the Cupola gecko, but we are hoping that there will be one or more small pockets out there somewhere where it has been able to hang on just a little bit longer.  We hope that we can find them again and put measures in place to ensure their long-term survival.

The Lizard Hunters cozy camp

“Gaaaaaaaaah!” is the most common word used by lizard hunters looking for Data Deficient lizards. It is usually said in frustration, sometimes amusement… but never defeat. We absolutely must keep looking for our Data Deficient species and solving their riddles because if we don’t, many species will disappear before we get to know them, and that would be a tragedy. As for the Cupola gecko, we are hoping that one day soon we are going to look under a rock or piece of bark and underneath there will be a living and breathing Cupola gecko staring back at us, and then the hills will once again echo with the lizard hunter’s triumphant call – “Cheeeeeeeehooooooooooooo!”

Lizard Hunter Ben Barr