Modeling a gecko family tree

The large-eyed lizards known as geckos, that dart about eating insects and hang out on walls, are a familiar sight in central or northern Australia. Surprisingly, although these lizards are common and familiar, there is still much to learn about their species diversity.

Original species descriptions of some gecko groups have been found to be incorrect and the patterns or relationships — the ‘family tree’ — that connected the different species were unknown

Dr Mark Hutchinson, Senior Research Scientist in Herpetology at the South Australian Museum and his team are investigating one particularly troublesome group — geckos known by the Aboriginal name dtella and scientifically as Gehyra species.

Much of the team’s early work investigating these relationships was undertaken using frozen tissues previously collected from geckos and stored in the Museum’s Australian Biological Tissue Collection (ABTC). The project is a great example of ABTC’s value for scientific research.

As the project progressed, the team undertook field work that targeted gaps in the ABTC holdings or resampled populations that looked significant for various reasons to provide new tissue samples.

Eventually, genetic modeling conducted with the new data revealed the phylogenetic, or evolutionary, relationships between the gecko populations. It also revealed that two species of geckos previously described were actually five species — three of which were new to science.

This research was funded by the Australian Biological Resources Study.

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