Common wonder gecko: still an unknown across UAE
DUBAI // It shakes its tail like a snake to frighten off predators, it collects moisture through its thin skin and it can survive for days without food or water. They call it the common wonder gecko.
A solitary, nocturnal creature, it lives in sand dune burrows and has a skin of brilliant orange and yellow.
But the biggest wonder of the wonder gecko is that, more than 20 years since its discovery, we still know almost nothing about it.
"We hardly know anything about them in the wild," says Johannes Els, head of the herpetology and freshwater fish department at Sharjah's Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife.
The UAE's Teratoscincus scincus is treated as a subspecies of the common wonder gecko from Iran and northern Pakistan, and is slighter bulkier and more colourful.
Some scientists believe it might be a distinct species - and if so, it may already face extinction. On a global scale the species is listed as vulnerable. Mr Els believes the UAE population is endangered.
"Most likely they will turn out to be a different species," he says. "The best precaution is protect what we've got."
Wonder geckos live on narrow coastal dune strips, where they bathe in the morning sea mists.
There are three known populations scattered across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Umm Al Quwain.
"All of these areas have coastal development," Mr Els says. "There are gaps between these populations and it's quite questionable why they're not there."
The Sharjah Wildlife Centre has a rescued population from Dubai of about 80 that could be reintroduced to the wild as a "last resort".
"Once the habitat is lost it's very difficult to reintroduce animals," Mr Els says.
Even if their dunes remain, the geckos are territorial and a reintroduction may not be peaceful.
"The males do fight quite violently. They will kill the new ones that are arriving or they will kill the existing animals on the site."
They are shy, and usually quick to hide in their burrows. But if challenged, they straighten their legs, stand on their toes, arch their backs and bark.
Then they shake the scales on their tails to make a sound like a hissing viper. The trick saves moisture lost by breathing through the mouth. The wonder gecko is the only gecko known to do this.
If frightened, the gecko will lose its tail completely, a common gecko defence to distract predators. It also has a thin skin that tears easily if a predator tries to grab it.
Its natural predators include owls, snakes and foxes, but its greatest modern threat comes from pet traders, who prize it for its bright colours and large size.
The geckos are also known as large scale geckos or frog eye geckos for their large, lidless eyes that absorb light when they hunt insects and invertebrates at night, and glow ruby red in the torchlight, making them easy to catch.
"Within a week [people] can collect quite a few, which means the entire population will be depleted and obviously a lot will die," says Mr Els.
And the UAE has no conservation laws specifically for reptiles, he says.
"You're not allowed to hunt or kill animals but there's no real law enforcement that prevents or restrains people from taking them.
"There's no permit system, no control in the UAE when it comes to collecting reptiles and catching them."
Little is known about breeding or mate selection. Both sexes are between 10cm and 15cm long and weigh from 4 to 9 grams. Each lives in its own burrow: they mate and then split up.
In captivity, the main breeding season for geckos is from March to August. The female produces one or two round, marble-size eggs with hard shells, and can lay three to four clutches in a season.
She buries the eggs in the ground to keep them safe until they hatch after three to four months.
The need to work out how many of the geckos there are, and where they live is urgent, says Mr Els.
He wants impact assessment studies to be carried out so that future developments will leave the reptiles and their habitat as unaffected as possible - "or try to avoid developing the area if possible".
The first full International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list for Arabian reptiles will be released this year.