It would seem to be a rare thing indeed: an expedition to a remote mountain range results in the discovery of an ecological ‘lost world’…but that’s exactly what happened to biologist Conrad Hoskin of James Cook University (Queensland), along with a National Geographic film crew, after being dropped by helicopter onto the remote mountain range of Cape Melville on the Cape York Peninsula, Australia, earlier this year.
The results of the expedition are only now being publicized (this is typical for major expeditions of this kind) following careful genetic and taxonomic analysis.
Among the many finds, the team discovered three vertebrates never before seen by science, and which were probably living in isolation in the rugged, montane environment for millions of years. These vertebrates include a brown-spotted frog that dwells only on a certain yellowish, granite boulder, a gold-colored skink, and a prickly-looking, leaf-tailed gecko — all good news for lizard and amphibian lovers.
Such discoveries grow more rare every passing year as humans explore (or invade) nearly every habitable corner of the planet, and, sadly, as many of the world’s lizard and amphibian species have been decimatred from a combination of habitat destruction, global warming, and fungal disease.
In a press interview with AFP, Hoskin could hardly contain his excitement:
“The top of Cape Melville is a lost world. Finding these new species up there is the discovery of a lifetime — I’m still amazed and buzzing from it. Finding three new, obviously distinct vertebrates would be surprising enough in somewhere poorly explored like New Guinea, let alone in Australia, a country we think we’ve explored pretty well.”
Getting to the ‘lost world’ could only be done by helicopter as the high-elevation terrain is populated with millions of massive granite boulders, many being hundreds of meters high, that jut out of the earth — the result of violent geological events that occurred millions of years ago.
The rugged landscape has served as a giant stone fortress, preventing exploration of the higher elevations. There had been a few previous surveys of the boulder fields around the base of Cape Melville, however, the plateau was mostly unexplored; a recent satellite survey had identified a boulder-ridden rainforest atop the plateau and this prompted the expedition.
The three vertebrates were discovered within a few days of arrival. The team has made other discoveries that await future publication but the main discovery (so far reported) is the slender, leaf-tailed gecko (see top photo) which measures 20 centimeters (7.9 inches). The lizard has been called “primitive-looking” and described as a “relic” from an ancient era when rainforests were more common across Australia. Hoskin knew it was a new species the moment he saw it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime find for any biologist, but it was not the last of his discoveries.
The big-eyed vertebrate has been dubbed the Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko* and also been accorded its binomial (taxonomic) designation: Saltuarius eximius (details of the finding were published in the International journal Zootaxa). The newly discovered gecko’s bizarre skin patterning provides excellent camouflage while it lays flat waiting to snare any passing insects or spiders.
Like the gecko, the Cape Melville Shade Skink (see image at left) is unique to the rainforest plateau; both have related species found in lower-lying, more southerly rain-forested areas, but each is distinct in appearance. Skinks are members of the Scincidae family (the largest lizard family) but lack a well-defined neck and have smaller limbs than other lizards species.
The third vertebrate has been dubbed the Blotched Boulder-frog (Cophixalus petrophilus**; see image at lower right) and it spends most of the dry season in the moister, cooler areas deep within the boulder field, and where females lay their eggs in the moist cracks of the massive rocks. Unlike most tadpoles, the Blotched Boulder tadpole does not require a watery environment — it develops within the egg and hatches out fully formed.
“All the animals from Cape Melville are incredible just for their ability to persist for millions of years in the same area and not go extinct. It’s just mind-blowing,” Hoskin said (quote source: see link below).
The Hoskin team and Nat Geo crew are planning a return trip to this ‘lost world’ in the coming months. No doubt more wonderful discoveries await them.
Some source material for this post came from the AFP News story: ‘Lost world’ discovered in remote Australia‘ (via Yahoo News). Photos came from the same AFP story and were provided by Conrad Hoskin of James Cook University (Queensland, Australia); credits: AFP Photo/ Conrad Hoskin