30 Jan 2024

New species of Gecko on Auckland's West Coast named

From Checkpoint, 6:11 pm on 30 January 2024


A new species of gecko discovered on the west coast of Auckland at last has its own official name: the Korowai.

The species was first found in 2014 and after a decade of research the reptile can officially be - as the scientists put it - 'described'.

But with just 32 living in Muriwai Regional Park, the Korowai are considered a nationally vulnerable species.

Now urgent conservation work is being carried out to protect the lizards from threats including four wheel driving on the beach and hundreds of mice.

About two kilometres up Muriwai Beach and over the sand dunes you will find New Zealand's newest native species: the Korowai gecko.

Auckland Council has been monitoring them twice a year for the last five years, trying to find out as much as they can about the little brown lizards.  

Because they are nocturnal, they like to find shade during the day.

So the council has placed what it calls "grids" which are sheets of corrugated iron throughout the sand, providing a warm place for them to rest.

On Tuesday RNZ joined council officers to try and find some.  

No one was home for the first attempt but after searching for an hour, four geckos were finally spotted underneath one of the grids.

The Korowai gecko are considered a nationally vulnerable species.

A native Korowai gecko. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Auckland Council senior ecologist Melinda Rixon said it was unusual to find four all together. "Normally we're just talking about single individual geckos or at the very most two, I don't think I've ever actually found four under a cover before."

Once the geckos have been checked over they are released back into the grids.

As Rixon was releasing a juvenile male gecko, he leapt away into the sand, indicating how quick they are.

Years of research and searching have confirmed that just 32 geckos have been found and almost all of them bar two were at Muriwai Regional Park.

Rixon said that number showed the species was vulnerable and threats urgently needed to be addressed

"Because we've only found a reasonably small number of these animals, and in lots of areas we've looked and we haven't found any at all.
We know that actually this really needs our attention."

The newly named Korowai gecko is considered a nationally vulnerable species.

Thirty-two Korowai geckos are living in Muriwai Regional Park. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

One of the biggest risks to the species was recreational use of the regional park's sand dunes with four wheel drive vehicles tearing through the dunes and beach goers clambering over them, Rixon said.

"They're either indirectly affecting the lizards out there by just essentially modifying and destroying the habitat, but also they must be directly impacting the Korowai as well, like actually directly killing them."

Auckland Zoo, in collaboration with Auckland Council, has been putting out camera traps to try and understand the species and what is threatening them.

The findings were staggering, with nearly 200 mice spotted on the cameras.

Auckland Zoo curator of ectotherms Don McFarlane said once the mice were caught they needed to know whether or not they were eating the geckos.

"Next week, we're dissecting 180 mice at the zoo with a volunteer team and with some veterinary guidance and they are painstakingly removing a particular part of the gut of mice into vials, off to the lab... let's see whether those guts contain the precious Korowai gecko."

Local iwi, Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara has gifted the name Korowai to the species.

Tumaki of Nga Maunga Whakahii O Kaipara Ngahere Malcolm Paterson said they floated numerous names but decided on this one.

"It's derived from [a] traditional local name, so a traditional name for the South Kaipara Peninsula ... it also references that the markings on the gecko are not dissimilar to those on some forms of traditional cloak."