Monday, August 31, 2009

Eight Years, Eight Stings, and One Tiny Gecko

You're going to have a hard time finding someone who loves geckos more than Daniel Scantlebury. Dan's been keeping and breeding geckos since he was a teenager and now, at age 24, he continues to maintain a colony of hundreds of species sampled from across the gecko phylogeny. Eight years ago, one of Dan's aunts forwarded him a news article announcing the discovery of one of the world's smallest amniotes - a tiny gecko named Sphaerodactylus ariasae endemic to the southern tip of Hispaniola's Barahona Peninsula and the nearby satellite island of Beata (Hedges and Thomas 2001). Fast forward to today: Dan is PhD student in my lab working on the (much overlooked) adaptive radiation of West Indian Sphaerodactylus with a chance to finally realize his eight year old dream of finding what may be the world's smallest amniote.

For the past week, we've been in the town of Pedernales along the Dominican/Haitian border helping Dan gather ecological data and specimens for his thesis. Over that time we've found all of this region's endemic gecko species, with the exception of S. ariasae. We've been trying to get it for three days now. The first day, our efforts were thwarted by a roadblock along the road to Las Cuevas (a small community near the Bahia de las Aguilas that is the jumping off point for any trip into the range of S. ariasae). The roadblock was organized by locals protesting a Colombian cement companies lease on a waterfront property that they would like to see developed for ecotourism (photo 1 [sorry pics are so small, I need to figure out how to do this as slideshow...]).

The second day, we tried to avoid a costly and time-consuming marine expedition to known S. ariasae localities by making one of the forays that I've come to know as a "Google Earth Goose-chase" or "Google Earth Gambit" starting at the Bahia de las Aguilas. These jaunts involve heading toward promising localities that Dan has identified with the aid of the high resolution satellite images available in Google Earth. In Jaragua National Park and surrounding regions on the Barahona Peninsula, these gambits tend to involve a bit of hardship. Everything on the southern tip of the Barahona Peninsula is hard, sharp, and hot (see photo 2). The terrain is primarily jagged limestone outcroppings, the plants are comprised almost exclusively of spiny acacias and cacti, and the shade is difficult to come by (it's no surprise that this remains one of the most pristine natural areas in all of the Caribbean!). This region is also home to more than its fair share of wasps and bees. Our group has endured more than 20 stings so far, no one more than Dan, who sits atop the leader board with 8 stings (his hand remains swollen today after a three sting outing to a beach locality near Pedernales three days ago). Unfortunately, our attempt to bushwack to new Google Earth-identified localities resulted in hours of hiking, lots of scratches, considerable degradation of my leather boots, and only two geckos (both S. plummeri [see photo 3], a species we'd already sampled for more easily accessible localities). We also saw S. thompsoni, a rock-dwelling species endemic to this region (see photo 4)

Yesterday, with only one day left in Pedernales, Dan decided to stop messing around by heading straight for the type locality of S. ariasae. Because the only way to reach this locality is by boat, we arranged to depart at 6AM to avoid choppy seas along the 2+ hour trip from Las Cuevas to Cabo Beata and Isla Beata. Unfortunately, we didn't get far before our motor failed just off the coast (photo 5). After an hour at sea spent attempting to repair a bum carborator, we limped back to the docks. Given it was our last day in the region, our hopes of finding S. ariasae were in jeopardy. With a bit of quick thinking and luck though, we were able to find a local fisherman who agreed to take us to Isla Beata. We downgraded our motor from a 75 to a 40, but were assured that we could still get to the S. ariasae localities in less than 3 hours.

Once we'd transfered to the new boat, we took a route that hugged the coast in an effort to avoid the worst of the whitecaps. Nevertheless, we still endured a bone-jarring ride that I'm sure we'll be feeling for days. We stopped briefly at a mainland locality for S. ariasae (Cabo Beata, a.k.a. Piticabo), but had a hard time finding habitat that seemed appropriate. We quickly decided our time would be best spent on Isla Beata itself and made our way across the shallow channel to the Dominican navy outpost on the island's north side (photo 6). Knowing our time was short (we didn't get to the island until 2PM and knew that we would need to begin our return to the mainland by 4:30PM to avoid boating in the dark), we headed immediately to the type locality. Once there, Dan and Miguel (a Dominican naturalist and photographer who is the fourth member of our group) quickly descended into the limestone sinkhole described by Hedges and Thomas (photo 7), while Julienne and I began sifting through the leaflitter along the rim. After just a few minutes I heard Dan shout "I got one!" At virtually the same moment, I saw another directly in front of me, but, in the words of Albert Schwartz, I "failed to secure the specimen." The last photo is an adult male S. ariasae on my thumbnail.

In another two hours of searching I heard four more shouts of joy from Dan and Julienne as they observed one S. ariasae after another (inevitably, of course, these proclaimations were scattered around at least one shout of pain and suffering as Miguel was stung mid-back by the cliff nesting bee). Another cost of our quest for S. ariasae would be evident later when we broke out in nasty rashes on our arms and ankles from having spent time on our hands and knees searching in the litter beneath poisonwood trees).

At then end of the day, we made a triumphant return to Pedernales. Although I can't claim that finding S. ariasae was the culmination of an eight year dream, it was a joy to share even a small part of the satisfaction the day had brought to the lab's gecko enthusiast.


Anonymous said...

Fun story and awesome place. Oh Cabo Rojo, I wish I knew thee.

Dan Warren said...

Hey Rich, on the slideshow front - the easiest way I've found is just to get Picasa, upload them to a folder in your Picasa account, and then use the Picasa web interface to make a slideshow. There's an example on the Wainwright Lab blog here:

As a bizarre coincidence, there's even a tiny gecko picture in there. It just showed up in my hotel room one night. I assume it's just a baby of something else, though.