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].
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).
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).
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…
- The Tet Zoo guide to Gekkota, part I
- Gekkota part II: loud voices, hard eggshells and giant calcium-filled neck pouches
- Squirting sticky fluid, having a sensitive knob, etc. (gekkotans part III)
- Lamellae, scansor pads, setae and adhesion… and the secondary loss of all of these things (gekkotans part IV)
- The incredible leaf-tailed geckos (gekkotans part V)
For previous Tet Zoo articles on neat squamates see…
- Mosasaurs might have used the same microscopic streamlining tricks as sharks and dolphins
- Tongues, venom glands, and the changing face of Goronyosaurus
- Dinosaurs come out to play (so do turtles, and crocodilians, and Komodo dragons)
- Tell me something new about basilisks, puh-lease
- ‘Cryptic intermediates’ and the evolution of chameleons
- The Great Goswell Copse Zootoca
- Of giant plated lizards and rough-necked monitors
- Ermentrude the liolaemine
- Evolutionary intermediates among the girdled lizards
- Hell yes: Komodo dragons!!!
- Amazing social life of the Green iguana
- Arboreal alligator lizards – yes, really
- Pompey and Steepo, the world-record-holding champion slow-worms
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)