Issue 13.6: Dec. 2010 - Jan. 2011

Day of the Gecko

Story by Michael Shapiro
Photos by David Liitschwager

In 2005 someone stole the Pacific Beach Hotel’s gecko. The six-foot sculpture, nicknamed “Uncle Sam” because it’d been painted like an American flag, had become something of a mascot; the staff would hang a fresh lei around its neck every morning, and they’d occasionally grace it with a lauhala hat. Uncle Sam was one of fifty-five fiberglass gecko sculptures created for the wildly successful community art fundraising project “Geckoes in Paradise.” Every gecko sold, and for a time giant, gaudily painted lizards materialized around Honolulu. When Uncle Sam went missing it didn’t take eagle-eyed Honolulu police long to bust the thief, because he’d bolted it to the roof of his car. Uncle Sam was recovered and restored to his perch outside the hotel, where he remains today.

 

Which goes to prove the obvious: Thieves often aren’t very bright, and Hawai‘i loves geckoes. Why not? They’re companionable reptiles, entertaining us around porch lights and keeping a lid on pestiferous tropical house-dwellers, including each other. But we politely ignore the cannibal predator in them because they’re, well, adorable, and the rice-size droppings they leave on our windowsills seem a small price to pay for their extermination services. Of course there will always be that squeamish fringe—like Kaua‘i resident Marilyn Wong, who was so spooked by a gecko she discovered upstairs in her Princeville home that she sealed off the second floor and never ventured there again. When Hurricane ‘Iniki tore the second story away, she was relieved that the offending gecko went with it (true story).

 

But for most of us, geckoes are woven happily into the fabric of Island life. They adorn mailboxes and T-shirts. They’re the protagonists of children’s books, in which they surf and dispense shakas. There’s one on the logo of the Kona Brewing Co., and just try selling car insurance using a Komodo dragon as your spokeslizard. “They’re really cute and popular,” says Rochelle Lum, the artist who designed the Geckoes in Paradise sculptures, “and whether you’re new or you’re from here, everybody knows about them.”

What, though, do we really know? Surprisingly little. Few of us might be aware that geckoes aren’t native to the Islands (no terrestrial reptiles are) or that half of the species here now arrived very recently, within the last sixty years. Even scientists don’t know much about Hawai‘i’s gecko populations; why spend scarce research dollars on a benign lizard,the thinking goes, when other alien reptiles pose real threats? For herpetologists Hawai‘i, with its dearth of reptiles, just isn’t much of an attraction anyway. “It’d be like going to Alaska to study coral,” jokes Fred Kraus, a zoologist and alien species specialist for Bishop Museum. “Why bother?”

 


 

 

Let’s be clear on which “herp”—reptile or amphibian—we’re dealing with. As common as they are, geckoes are often confused with another lizard seen clinging to walls and plants, the brown anole. But they’re easy to tell apart; if the gecko is the reptile equivalent of a Cooper MINI, the anole, with its sleek lines and clawed toes, is a Corvette. Geckoes, on the other hand, are distinguished by their rounded toe pads and chunky bodies. Look closer and you’ll note that they also don’t have eyelids, hence their cute, Japanese manga-girl expression. (More precisely, they do have eyelids; they just can’t move them. They clean their eyes by using their tongues like a windshield wiper.) And as anyone who’s spent an evening on a länai in Hawai‘i knows, their chirp sounds a bit like laughter. Geckoes in fact are the only lizards that vocalize beyond brute hissing; the name “gecko” derives from the Javanese tokek, a word that mimics the call of the Tokay gecko native to Indonesia.

 

There are eight gecko species estab­lished in Hawai‘i today, all of them likely introduced by humans. Four probably got here as stowaways on Polynesian sailing canoes: the mourning gecko (Lepido­dactylus lugubris), the stump-toed gecko (Gehyra mutilata), the tree gecko (Hemiphyllodactylus typus) and the Indo-Pacific gecko (Hemidactylus garnotii). To the casual observer they look alike: diminutive and in shades of cream, beige, brown and charcoal. They’re nocturnal, so they don’t need to be flashy, and their drab coloration is good camouflage during the day. Three of these species—the mourning, stump-toed and Indo-Pacific geckoes—are likely to be spotted hunting in the glow of porch lights. Or at least were; while all of the founding four are still around if one goes looking, only the mourning gecko remains common in and around houses.

 

Fragile bones found in sinkholes on O‘ahu’s ‘Ewa plain indicate that geckoes existed alongside early humans, possibly introduced as early as 400 AD, not long after the first canoes landed. So far nothing has been found to suggest that they were here before then, and it’s unlikely: Apart from marine iguanas, saltwater crocs and perhaps Godzilla, lizards and seawater don’t mix. But some gecko eggs could have survived the journey across the world’s largest saltwater moat, says Susan Brown, a UH Hilo professor who’s studied the mourning gecko. Its eggs are salt-tolerant and have a surprisingly long gestation period—up to 125 days. So it’s at least “theoretically possible that they crossed the Pacific on a log and hatched in Hawai‘i,” she says.

 

But getting here would have been only half the battle. Establishing a colony usually requires two arrivals, male and female. Not so for certain gecko species, because they’re parthenogenic; that is, they reproduce without mating. All of Hawai‘i’s mourning geckoes, tree geckoes and Indo-Pacific geckoes are “unisexual”—all female. And because they reproduce without the introduction of new genes, unisexual geckoes are also clones; some of the animals we see today could be carbon copies of geckoes that arrived 1,600 years ago. Parthenogenesis gives geckoes a serious advantage in the colonization game, Brown says. “If two males end up someplace, the species isn’t going to get a foothold, but if a unisexual gecko ends up someplace, there’s a better chance it’ll survive. Every member of your population can reproduce. … That’s a really good reason not to have males,” she laughs. If the idea of a world without men makes some people uneasy, those same people might go apoplectic to learn that these geckoes aren’t just unisexual; they’re homosexual. Female pairs engage in “pseudo-sex”; one mounts the other and then they switch, a behavior thought to stimulate egg-laying.

 

This adaptation would have without doubt helped a gecko once it got here, but whether any made the trip independent from humans, Brown says, “I’m not sure anybody will ever know.”

 


 

 

What we do know is that for as long as humans have been here, geckoes have lived among us. Early Hawaiians were aware of them, though they don’t seem to have distinguished among different species. The Hawaiian language has only one word for lizard: mo‘o.

 

Even though there were only seven species of lizard here before Western contact (the four geckoes and three skinks, also stowaways), Hawaiian legends are filled with them. These mythic mo‘o were not the harmless “house or rock lizards … or any of the little creatures with which we are familiar,” writes nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau. Mo‘o, he says, are terrifying, dragonlike creatures up to twenty-five feet long. Unpredictable and capricious, mo‘o might aid or attack trespassers in their territories—usually streams, lakes, waterfalls and fishponds—and failure to propitiate the fickle spirit could prove fatal.

 

For some, mo‘o aren’t pure myth. Kamakau insists that “hundreds and thousands of people” had physically seen Mokuhinia, a mo‘o that lived on Maui. Muriel Seto, a Kailua resident who collected oral histories in the 1960s, wrote that some of Kailua’s küpuna (elders) reported seeing Hauwahine, the mo‘o of Kawainui wetland. Some Hawaiian families today claim the mo‘o as their ‘aumakua, or spirit guardian. For them the physical embodiment of the ‘aumakua—like the gecko—is to be protected. Harming one could have dire consequences: “Mai kolohe i ka mo‘o o lele i ka pali,” goes one proverb in Mary Kawena Pukui’s ‘Ölelo No‘eau. A warning, Pukui explains, not to bother lizards lest the mo‘o spirit drive you to leap to your death.

 

Maybe it’s just lucky that with all the trans-Pacific commerce moving through Hawai‘i after 1778, no new gecko species debarked. If they did, they didn’t survive. It wasn’t until 1951 that the new kid on the block, the common house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus), was first reported in Kailua, O‘ahu. In the sixty years since, the house gecko has become the classic Hawai‘i gecko. Its body type (wedge-shaped head, meaty torso, curlicue tail) was Lum’s model for the Geckoes in Paradise sculptures, and it’s the gecko you’re most likely to see and hear these days. Frenatus probably hitched a ride to Hawai‘i on military equipment returning from the Pacific theater after WWII. With the larger human war ending, few paid attention to the smaller war just beginning.

 

What’s remarkable—and instructive—about the house gecko is how quickly it displaced the geckoes that were already here. This fierce and territorial insectivore is a widely distributed “tropicopolitan” species; as of 2008 it’s been cataloged in eighty-seven locations outside its native range. It’s also what Sean McKeown, author of A Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians in the Hawaiian Islands, calls a “supertramp”: a generalist that prospers in a variety of different habitats. When supertramps move into a favorable area, they often spread rapidly, and Hawai‘i offered the house gecko a wide-open niche. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, writes McKeown, mourning and stump-toed geckoes were the most common lizards around lights at night on Kaua‘i. That changed. Now the house gecko is by far the most abundant gecko in urban and suburban Kaua‘i as well as on all the main islands. It’s even managed to colonize barren Kaho‘olawe. In less than one human generation, the familiar geckoes old-timers had grown up with gradually declined as this sallow-skinned parvenu became the new lizard king.

 

Whenever a new species shows up in an island ecosystem, there’s reason for concern, but it’s difficult to say what effect geckoes have had on native species. The early geckoes “might have been a disaster for native insects,” says Kraus, “but if they were, it occurred over a thousand years ago, and we’ll never know about it.” And because the house gecko sticks mostly to areas the earlier geckoes have already colonized, says Kraus, its impact on native species is probably negligible. “But nobody’s looked,” he cautions, “and nobody’s likely to.”

So geckoes have mostly fallen through the cracks—ignored as neutral, welcomed as beneficial or even, as with the “day geckoes,” beloved for their beauty. Day geckoes have been here for only thirty-odd years. They’re spreading, and what impact they might eventually have, nobody knows.

 


 

 

It’s fitting that the mailbox at 172 Ku‘umele Street is painted with a bright green gecko, because it’s in this suburban Kailua neighborhood that the orange-spotted day gecko (Phelsuma guimbeaui) first appeared in the 1980s. The owners of the house, Joe and Diane van Ryzin, fell in love with the gorgeous little herp; with its electric green skin and bright red markings, it was a living work of art. When he first encountered it, Joe recalls, “I got excited. I had this incredible green gecko! I talked to my neighbors but they hadn’t seen one. I made friends with the geckoes and took the kids out to see them. They’re really friendly.”

 

So when the van Ryzins moved into the new house they’d built just next door, they brought their geckoes along. “Joe caught a bunch and introduced them to be sure we wouldn’t lose them,” says Diane.

 

“They were my friends, you know,” Joe explains. “So every time a gecko ran by as I was moving my stuff, I’d say, ‘Hey, you’re moving, too.’”

 

“Just the green ones,” Diane clarifies. “Not the yucky ones.”

 

By now almost everyone’s seen a day gecko, if not in person then on TV: the GEICO gecko is based on a member of the genus Phelsuma. Day geckoes, so called because they’re diurnal, are native to Madagascar and smaller islands off East Africa. In their home ranges they’ve become rare due to habitat loss and over­harvesting for sale in the international pet trade (now illegal). But in Hawai‘i they’re flourishing, particularly the brilliant gold dust day gecko (Phelsuma laticauda), introduced in the ’70s and now common on O‘ahu and the Kona side of the Big Island, with smaller populations on Maui and Kaua‘i. It’s most recently appeared in Kaunakakai. The orange-spotted day gecko, as far as anyone knows, remains restricted to the Kailua neighborhood where it was introduced—deliberately.

 

Back in the ’70s, the state issued permits to bring in certain reptiles, though not day geckoes. A special exemp-

tion was given to the Honolulu Zoo, how-ever, to import Phelsuma for its exhibits. They were to be kept in enclosures only, but some didn’t obey that restriction. Sean McKeown, then curator of herpetology at the Honolulu Zoo and an enthusiastic hobbyist, released several Phelsuma species on zoo grounds. “The idea was that isolated stands of plants, like palms, could serve as ‘islands’ for colonies,” recalls Tihoti Maha‘a, a former student of McKeown’s. It was thought that the geckoes would stay on these islands, and in many cases that was true. Many of the zoo colonies died out, but not all. The stunning blue-tailed day gecko “persisted in the vicinity of the monkey exhibits through the ’90s,” Maha‘a says, “when the zoo implemented measures to recapture the colony.” No effort was made to recapture gold dusts, because by then there wasn’t much point—they were established else-where on O‘ahu. McKeown, who died in 2002, is also responsible for introducing orange-spotteds in Kailua. The area around his former home, just two blocks away from the van Ryzins, is guimbeaui ground zero. Maha‘a recalls that McKeown had once given his neighbor a “shoebox of brightly colored lizards” to release on his property, which according to Maha‘a the neighbor did.

 

In this day and age, introducing alien species into a closed island ecosystem like Hawai‘i seems like an anathema. With so many cautionary tales already out there, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be willing to take such a risk. But McKeown had a different attitude toward alien introductions than many biologists do, Maha‘a says. “Sean was very much a product of a time when introductions were seen as potentially beneficial or even improvements to a place. … There was no malice intended.” Nevertheless, in 1997 the state cracked down on the import and export of reptiles, not so much because of geckoes but because of a more serious threat, the Jackson’s chameleon. But it was too late: Phelsuma were established, and no one could do much about it.

And many residents frankly don’t want to do much about it; like the van Ryzins they welcome day geckoes. Who wouldn’t want a sociable, psychedelic lizard patrol­ling their länai? While the van Ryzins’ affection is typical, it’s also problematic: People deliberately spread day geckoes, which partly explains how they’ve colonized the Islands so quickly. (They’re also unintentionally transported around in potted plants.)

 

It’s still the dawn of the day of the day gecko, and it remains to be seen what it will do. If it follows the pattern of the house gecko, Hawai‘i could witness another sea change, one that might already be underway: Day geckoes stay active at night if there’s a light source. “If you look under the lights in Kona,” says Susan Brown, “the primary gecko now is the gold dust. It’ll run other geckoes off, even the big frenatus. People on the Kona side are watching their geckoes disappear as that day gecko moves in.” And unlike house geckoes, day geckoes also feed on fruit and plant nectar, giving them more freedom to expand their range.

 

The day gecko could also threaten native species. Steve Montgomery, one of the state’s foremost entomologists, has found gold dusts in Kona dry forests at 1,000 feet, the same habitat as a rare native plant hopper. Now that the day gecko is there, says Montgomery, “that insect’s days are numbered.” And while it’s hard to predict how or even whether the day gecko will expand its range, “All we have to do is look at what’s known about Phelsuma,” he says. “In Madagascar they’re found as high as 5,000 feet; there’s no forest in Hawai‘i outside of their potential habitat. …We’re playing biological Russian roulette,” he says.

 

It’s a Tuesday afternoon on Huelo Street near the back of Mänoa Valley, and Grant Merritt is fishing for geckoes. He’s rigged up a simple device—a fishing pole with a monofilament loop at the end—but it works. Leaning against the trunk of an areca palm, he jiggles the loop a few inches in front of a fat, green gecko poised below the crown of the tree. It regards the pole with its lidless eye, impassive.

 

“They’re aggressive,” Merritt tells me. “They can’t see the loop, but they’ll bite therod.” The gecko Merritt’s trying to snag is the most recent arrival, the Madagascar giant day gecko (Phelsuma madagasca­rensis grandis). It’s a cousin of the gold dust and orange-spotted, but on steroids. They can grow to a foot long, and they bite. Merritt says that since he first saw one ten years ago, they’ve slowly radiated through this west Mänoa neighborhood. Doubtless they would have spread more quickly if not for Merritt, who’s taken it upon himself to catch or kill as many as he can, about thirty so far. You’ll often find him policing the neighborhood with his homemade snare, and if that doesn’t work, his pellet gun will.

 

“From thirty feet I’m a pretty good shot,” he says.

 

Merritt didn’t pay much attention to the day geckoes at first. “‘That’s cool,’ I thought. ‘It’s a neat gecko,’” he says. “It didn’t occur to me then what was going on.”

 

What was allegedly going on was that Merritt’s neighbor had been releasing smuggled exotic geckoes. Not only giant day geckoes, but Tokay geckoes, which are even larger, more aggressive and louder. Neighbors called the state Department of Agriculture’s hot line, 643-PEST, to report a bizarre new sound in the night. The man suspected of releasing the Tokays was already well known to the DOA, which had responded to prior complaints about exotic herps on and around his property. Fred Kraus along with DOA agents recovered five Tokays, now pickled in formaldehyde at Bishop Museum, and as far as anyone knows the Mänoa Tokays have been eradicated. But the giant day gecko is too well established for underfunded state agencies to manage—especially the DOA, which lost a third of its inspectors in last year’s budget cuts. So the state must rely on the help of concerned citizens.

 

“Hopefully they’ll put a dent in the population through attrition,” says Domingo Cravalho, the inspection and compliance chief for the DOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch. “But it’s not a very organized way of control, and the population is just spreading. There’s no effort to actually go out there because of the number of animals we’re dealing with and because of the sensitivity of certain residents in the area who are, I guess, embracing the animals.”

 

Merritt’s quarry isn’t playing ball. After a few minutes of jiggling the line, Merritt gives up. The gecko turns and creeps into the high fronds. “Can’t win ’em all,” he says as we head back toward his house. Across the street, one of his neighbors is standing at the end of her driveway.

 

“You have any green geckoes up there?” Merritt asks.

 

“Not telling!” she says.

 

“Why not?” I ask her.

 

“Because,” she says, pointing at Merritt, “he’ll catch ’em and turn ’em in!”

 

“She likes the geckoes,” Merritt tells me. “She’s not from here; she’s from Brazil, where they have all kinds of stuff.” He shrugs. “People don’t understand.”

 

Just behind Huelo Street, the jungle grows up to the ridge, into the Honolulu Watershed Forest Reserve. It continues unbroken toward the cloud-hung summit of Mount Olympus, one of the highest peaks of the Ko‘olau range, where fragments of native koa and ‘öhi‘a forest are still hanging on.

 

It might well be hopeless, but the lone figure with a fishing rod, who represents pretty much the entirety of the state’s giant day gecko control effort, intends to continue the fight.

 

“On weekends I’ll put on my bright green shirt and pretend I’m security watch,” Merritt grins. “The neighbors know I’m nuts.”