Tetrapod Zoology

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ResearchBlogging.org

So, you’ve had an introduction to the incredible leaf-tailed geckos (Uroplatus). In view of their bizarre appearance, it’s perhaps not so surprising that leaf-tailed geckos have commanded attention for a long time and there’s a large historical literature on these animals (see Bauer & Russell (1989) for review) [U. fimbriatus shown here; image by J. W. Connelly, from wikipedia].

The very first description comes from Etienne de Flacourt’s L’Histoire de la Grand Île de Madagascar, published in 1658, and some accounts from the early 1700s – referring to animals from Chile, Arabia and Egypt – meant that the concept of the leaf-tailed gecko became confused with unusual frogs, Madagascan day geckos and other animals. Some authors assumed that Uroplatus was aquatic. Uroplatus fimbriatus – starting its history as Stellio fimbriatus Schneider, 1797 – was the first species to be named [illustration below - from Bauer & Russell (1989) - shows La Cépède's illustration from 1788 of 'La Tête Plate': clearly an early depiction of U. fimbriatus].

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While some early authors recognised that leaf-tailed geckos were close to other members of Gekkota, others noted seemingly important differences and classified Uroplatus alongside lizards now included in Iguania and Anguimorpha. In Georges A. Boulenger’s highly influential classification scheme, Uroplatus became separated in a ‘family’ of its own: Uroplatidae. For a while after this, it was even implied by some that Uroplatus was somehow intermediate between other geckos and chameleons, or even that uroplatids were closer to chameleons than to other lizards.

Not until the early decades of the 20th century did workers like François Mocquard, Charles L. Camp and Margarete Vera Wellborn show beyond doubt that Uroplatus is a member of the gecko clade, though the term Uroplatidae was still being used as recently as the 1950s. Underwood (1954) showed that Uroplatus is definitely a gekkonine gekkonid, albeit a very weird one, but its affinities within Gekkoninae have yet to be worked out (more on affinities in a later article).

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Having mentioned Vera Wellborn’s work – the cover of her monograph (Wellborn 1997) is shown here… this was published in 1933, but became mostly ignored, largely because it was written in German. Because it contains such a wealth of data on gekkotan anatomy, Anthony Russell, Aaron Bauer and Alexandra Deufel translated it into English in 1997. Even today it’s a useful source of information. She argued that Uroplatus was, while highly distinctive, not representative of a special group, but rather lay “at one extreme of a continuum” (Bauer & Russell 1997, p. 5), and indeed all of its bizarre features are echoed elsewhere in other gekkonid taxa.

The ‘Salamandre aquatique et noire’

One peculiar mystery associated with the early literature on Uroplatus concerns Feuillée’s 1714 description of the ‘Salamandre aquatique et noire’ from Chile. Feuillée’s illustration [shown below: from Russell & Bauer (1988)] seemingly depicts a Uroplatus-like animal, and his description and drawing “later became incorporated into the general concept of what was to become Uroplatus” (Bauer & Russell 1989).

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However, not only did his animal (which he really did capture and examine personally) really come from Chile, but it was described as having a crest on its head, back and tail, eyelids, an inflatable throat and hindlimbs that were much longer than the forelimbs (note that the illustration does not depict all of these features). Some authors refused to accept that this was a real animal and argued that it was mythical, but this is unlikely given that Feuillée really does seem to have been describing a specimen he examined in the hand. Perhaps it was a metamorphosing frog or an iguanian of some sort (Bauer & Russell 1989); whatever, it remains an interesting enigma.

Gotta stop there. More on leaf-tailed geckos next. For previous Tet Zoo articles on gekkotans see…

For previous Tet Zoo articles on neat squamates see…

Refs – -

Bauer, A. M. & Russell, A. P. 1987. Introduction. In Wellborn, V. Comparative osteological examinations of geckonids, eublepharids and uroplatids. Breck Bartholomew, Bibliomania! (Logan, UT), pp. 1-11.

- . & Russell, A. P. 1989. A systematic review of the genus Uroplatus (Reptilia: Gekkonidae), with comments on its biology. Journal of Natural History 23, 169-203.

Russell, A., & Bauer, A. (1988). An early description of a member of the genus Phelsuma (Reptilia: Gekkonidae), with comments on names erroneously applied to Uroplatus fimbriatus Amphibia-Reptilia, 9 (2), 107-115 DOI: 10.1163/156853888X00521

Underwood, G. 1954. On the classification and evolution of geckos. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 124, 469-492.

Wellborn, V. 1997. Comparative osteological examinations of geckonids, eublepharids and uroplatids. Breck Bartholomew, Bibliomania! (Logan, UT)

Comments

  1. #1 Dartian
    May 20, 2010

    La Cépède’s illustration from 1788

    Hmm. Did he change the spelling from ‘La Cépède’ to ‘Lacépède’ (or vice versa) at some point, or have both spellings always been in use?

    Some authors refused to accept that this was a real animal and argued that it was mythical, but this is unlikely given that Feuillée really does seem to have been describing a specimen he examined in the hand. Perhaps it was a metamorphosing frog or an iguanian of some sort (Bauer & Russell 1989); whatever, it remains an interesting enigma.

    As you’ll see if you scroll down his Wikipedia page, the ‘Salamandre aquatique et noire’ was not the only weird shit that Louis Feuillée saw in South America.

  2. #2 David Marjanović
    May 20, 2010

    That “salamander” looks oddly chimeric. The tail looks like carbon-copied from Archaeopteryx, except it can’t be, 1714 coming before 1861 and all. Overall, the animal looks like a basilisk, but those don’t live in Chile. The hindlimbs are a frog’s, but the forelimbs have 5 fingers each…

    George A. Boulenger

    Georges, with silent s. Maybe it’s an attempt to preserve the entire Latin -ius ending in writing; compare Charles (again with silent s in French) and Jacques, and the word fils (“son”, Latin filius) where not the s but the l is silent.

  3. #3 David Marjanović
    May 20, 2010

    was not the only weird shit that Louis Feuillée saw in South America

    To be fair, that other weird shit could just be an overinterpretation of a disfigured lamb. Vertebrate eyes form as a single eye that later splits, and sometimes it fails to do so, causing all sorts of problems for head anatomy…

  4. #4 Ian
    May 20, 2010

    I agree with David’s inkling towards a basilisk for the salamandre aquatique. When you take into account their association with water, aquatic abilities, the description of the crests, the larger hindlimbs, and if you include the general look of the less-than-stellar drawing, I think it all sounds like a basilisk. I imagine he just bs-ed the location, and built in some features from memory of other animals.

    He mentions in regards to another chilean monster that he “having all the information about the monster vividly in my memory, I furnished what was missing from the drawing.” which sounds like it leaves a lot of room for imagination, interpretations, and mistakes. but who knows. it also looks kinda like a Ptychozoon kuhli.

  5. #5 Andrew O'Donnell
    May 20, 2010

    To be fair, that other weird shit could just be an overinterpretation of a disfigured lamb.

    Not even an overinterpretation, just a crappy drawing. If you look at his description of the creature, he makes it abundantly clear that it *was* a deformed and aborted lamb or calf.

    More specifically, the proboscis, the single eye, and the malformed skull all point to an animal suffering from severe holoprosencephaly.

  6. #6 Rosel
    May 20, 2010

    “translated it into English in 1997″
    I was wondering are articles requested to be translated, or are there freelance translators?
    As a languages graduate I’m interested to know the procedure, its something I’d be interested in getting into.

  7. #7 Dartian
    May 20, 2010

    Andrew:

    If you look at his description of the creature, he makes it abundantly clear that it *was* a deformed and aborted lamb or calf.

    Quite so. And for someone living in the 18th century it would not be unusual to use the word ‘monster’ (or, in this case, the French ‘monstre‘) to describe such an abnormal individual.

    Feuillée goes on to say:

    I think that the head of this fetus, even if it had gone to term, would not have lived since, without a nose, it could not have enjoyed the privilege of respiration.

    I think I’m going to steal the phrase ‘enjoyed the privilege of respiration’ and use it in my own publications.

  8. #8 David Marjanović
    May 20, 2010

    I imagine he just bs-ed the location

    “Habitat in Indiis” :-D

  9. #9 Andreas Johansson
    May 21, 2010

    Georges, with silent s. Maybe it’s an attempt to preserve the entire Latin -ius ending in writing; compare Charles (again with silent s in French) and Jacques, and the word fils (“son”, Latin filius) where not the s but the l is silent.

    With the names, I believe it’s just inertia from Old French, where final -s was sounded, forming among other things the nominative masc. singular. It got lost from normal nouns when the nominative/accusative distinction collapsed, but with names there was no commonly-used plural (deriving from the accusative plural, which was also formed in -s!) to usurp it.

  10. #10 Daniel
    May 21, 2010

    The salamandre aquatique et noire is really wasting too many cycles in my brain. Chimeric, translocated, mythic, cryptid? The drawing was made 10 years after the fact. IIRC, one source says it could grow to 45 inches![0]

    So, any chance that we could get the a quote of the description from Bauer & Russell 1989 (or from the man himself[1])? :)

    The closest I could get was the discussion by Duméril & Bibron 1836 [2], who seem to go by the drawing to call it a Ptyodactylus (i.e., Uroplatus).

    [0] http://tinyurl.com/salamandre-size

    [1] Feuillée, L. E. 1714 Journal des observations physiques, mathématiques et botaniques, Faites par l’ordre du Roy sur les Côtes Orientales de l’Amérique Méridionale, & dans les Indes Occidentales, depuis l’année 1707. jusques en 1712. Paris.

    [2] Duméril, A.M.C. & Bibron, G. 1836. Erpétologie générale ou, Histoire naturelle complète des reptiles. Volume 3.
    From http://tinyurl.com/salamandre-aquatique-noire

  11. #11 Daniel
    May 21, 2010

    Aha, found a description and it has a more credible length too:

    Of the aquatic lizard but one species has been discovered, to which Feuillé, who saw it, has given the name of the water salamander (salamandra aquatica nigra). It is fourteen inches and a half in length, including the tail; the skin is without scales, rough in a slight degree, and of a black inclining to blue; the head is elevated and rather long, the eyes large and yellow with a blue pupil, and the nostrils open with a fleshy border; its nose is pointed the mouth wide and furnished with two rows of small crooked teeth; the tongue is large, of a bright red, and attached at the base to the gullet, in which is a large crop that the animal can contract and expand at pleasure; like other water lizards it is without ears, and from the top of its head to the extremity of its tail extends a kind of indented crest.
    [added break]
    -
    The fore feet are much shorter than the hind, they have each five toes, which instead of nails are furnished with round cartilages; the tail is strait and rounded at the base, but towards the end becomes flattened and expanded like a spatula; it is about two inches in breadth, and the edges are notched like a saw.

    From http://tinyurl.com/salamandra-aquatica-nigra

  12. #12 Allen Hazen
    May 25, 2010

    Re:
    “Some authors assumed that Uroplatus was aquatic. Uroplatus fimbriatus – starting its history as Stellio fimbriatus Schneid”
    —Am I right in remembering that “Stellio” is either a salamander genus or an old word for salamander (bright yellow spots on a dark background reminding people of a starry sky), so that the report of the original classification goes along with the report that the animal was assumed to be aquatic?

  13. #13 Daniel
    June 7, 2010

    @Allen: I’ve seen old texts that present geckos as a kind of salamander (see http://tinyurl.com/jekko-salamander ), so yes, questioning how the aquatic habit was inferred seems wise here.