“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare once asked, apparently in Romeo and Juliet, which I just learned from Google because I did not pay attention in that class in college. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I think this means that a name doesn’t matter for much, because it’s just, like, words or something.
But don’t tell that to Madagascar’s most excellently named, not to mention most beautiful, critter: the satanic leaf-tailed gecko (sorry, aye-aye, but you’re a close second on both the name and the beauty). That’s its actual name, and you can be damn sure the gecko is proud of it. But monikers aside, this masterfully camouflaged little lizard, with a leafy tail complete with missing chunks that look to have rotted away, is a testament to natural selection.
Known to scientists as Uroplatus (meaning “flat tail”) phantasticus (meaning “good lord what is this thing and why is it looking at me like that?”), the satanic leaf-tailed gecko is one of 14 species in its genus, including the mossy leaf-tailed gecko, which long ago renounced Satan in favor of Mosses. These geckos are found only in Madagascar, and emerge only at night to hunt.
It’s thought that they’re after mostly insects, yet little is known about their diet in the wild. In captivity, though, “satanic leaf-tailed geckos feed on almost everything they can overwhelm, including crickets, flies, spiders, cockroaches, and snails,” said herpetologist Frank Glaw of the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology. “Large species like Uroplatus fimbriatus and Uroplatus giganteus even accept young mice.”
And the satanic leaf-tailed gecko has its own predators aplenty, including birds and snakes and rats. If they decide to stand their ground, they stare down their foes, and “suddenly widely open their mouths, emit loud cries, show the reddish tongue and mucosa and try to bite,” said Graw (it’s no wonder locals are very much afraid of the gecko—as they are of the aye-aye, as it happens). They’ll also flash their tails to confuse the potential predator, but should that fail, they can leap deftly from branch to branch or straight down to the leaf litter.
But, really, it’s best to just avoid being seen in the first place. And that, of course, is where their amazing camouflage really comes into play. Not only does the gecko’s tail look like a dead leaf, so too does its body.
“A light line along the back together with leaf-vein-like lines and skin structures on the body can complete the perfect imitation of a dead leaf,” said Graw. And their coloration is incredibly varied, as you can see in the gallery above, coming “in all shades of beige, grey and brown, often with a mixture of lichen-like or even greenish spots which look very much like moss. This variability ensures that they have an adapted outfit for the different structures in their habitat.”
Reinforcing this camouflage for the satanic leaf-tailed geckos is their behavior: They’ll spend the day hanging motionless off of branches or snuggling among dead leaves, often twisting their leafy tails around their bodies. Other larger species in the satanic’s genus have still another strategy for sleeping safely during the day, flattening their bodies against tree trunks and limbs, making good use of those famously grippy feet (a magic power derived, by the way, from countless hair-like structures that allow some geckos to even stick to inverted glass panes, not that nature would ever ask them to). Fringes and flaps along the edges of their bodies help erase their outlines and shadows, dissolving the geckos into the bark.
“Both strategies, to mimic dead leaves or tree bark, are obviously very successful to bluff diurnal predators that rely on their vision, especially birds,” said Graw. “A similar strategy has evolved in the Australian leaf-tailed geckos that resemble Uroplatus, although they are not closely related. However, it remains remarkable that these strategies have not evolved more often among geckos from other parts of the world.”
Dance Dance Evolution
But how on Earth could such ridiculously and perfectly complex camouflage evolve in the first place? Surely, some guiding hand in the sky must have said, “Yes, that’s a lovely outfit, let’s go with that one.” In reality, the satanic leaf-tailed gecko and its related species are some of the most striking manifestations of Darwin’s principle of natural selection.
First of all, it’s a harsh fact of life that some animals produce more offspring than can possibly survive. (It’s particularly harsh when you consider something like Australia’s mouse-like marsupial antechinus, whose males have so much sex that they go blind and die. They’re lucky to even make it that far, though: Females give birth to more young than they have teats. The strongest make it to a teat and survive, the others perish and tumble off of their mother.) Even if the organism can manage to not get picked off by the predator, the environment isn’t necessarily suited to nurture every single individual. There’s a certain capacity.
Offspring are born with variations, just as you and your siblings look and behave differently. And these variations either end up suiting the organism better or worse to its environment. Critters with the magic variations—say, looking a bit like the leaves they live in—have a better chance of surviving (by being more likely to escape a predator’s notice) to pass these genes along. Thus does a species adapt ever so slowly to its environment over evolutionary time. It’s been happening on Earth for billions of years. The satanic leaf-tailed gecko just happens to be one of its more fantastically molded triumphs.
So well done, satanic leaf-tailed gecko, you’ve earned the most hyperbolic yet simultaneously accurate name in the animal kingdom. Shakespeare would be proud … or disappointed. I still really have no clue what he was talking about with the whole names thing.
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By Matt Simon
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More pictures and information at Wired. Many thanks for the original article.