We’ve been lending our lizard skills to an incredibly special project, searching for an elusive New Zealand lizard - the northern striped gecko!

Our ectotherm team have been engaged in conservation fieldwork at Mahakirau Forest Estate for the past three years, surveying for northern striped gecko and Archey’s frogs in this beautiful native forest located on the crest of the Coromandel ranges. Our most recent fieldtrip was scheduled to happen in April but was delayed due to Covid-19. However. once country-wide travel was back on the cards, ectotherm keeper Seth travelled to Mahakirau to continue the survey, spending four days and three nights there.

The work of a conservationist isn’t exactly glamourous - spending hours in the cold searching for lizards isn’t for everyone. But although the mahi is hard, it is rewarding. Our ectotherm team commit hundreds of hours in fieldwork each year across the length and breadth of Aotearoa, putting their zoo-honed conservation science tool kit to good use in the wild.

Northern or Coromandel striped geckos, Torupuku “Coromandel”, are very rarely observed and might be one of the country’s rarest geckos. The species was first discovered in 1997 when an individual found a warm, dry place inside a residential home within the Coromandel township. They’re quite hard to spot as they’re primarily nocturnal and well camouflaged by their colouring; a dark tan with multiple pale stripes that converge to a single line that runs down the length of their tail. This helps them to blend in well to the forest vegetation. Most of what was known about the northern striped gecko was based on information gleaned about the related southern striped gecko Torupuku stephensi, but this is all changing through scientific observation and monitoring.

Seth says, “I enjoy pretty much everything about fieldwork! Although most people probably wouldn’t like the idea of working all night in all-weather looking for reptiles, for me as a reptile nerd it’s how I spend quite a lot of my spare time outside of work too. Being a part of studying a species that has only relatively recently been discovered - and that I remember reading about as a kid! - has been the highlight of my career so far. It also helps that they are beautiful to look at, I’ve never seen anything quite like them.”

Of course, our work with the northern striped gecko wouldn’t be possible without our conservation partnership with the Mahakirau Forest Estate Society Inc. (MFESI), which manages a large tract of forest comprised of multiple private properties in the Coromandel Ranges. The age of the forest, its pivotal location and the superb care the residents take of it through intensive pest control and active conservation stewardship, make it the ideal home for many of Aotearoa’s fascinating endemic species. On this trip Seth also encountered Hochstetter’s frogs and Helm’s butterfly. There aren’t many places in New Zealand where this would be possible, which is what makes it such a special place.

Auckland Zoo staff carry out gecko surveys four times per year. The first trip of the year also involves surveying for the tiny and evolutionarily distinct Archey’s Frog with every subsequent trip solely focused on the northern striped gecko. For each trip, our team coordinates with Sara Smerdon, Mahakirau’s ‘Community Advocate’, who Seth describes as amazingly hard-working. Sara lives on the forest estate and does most of the important pest control out there. As with most ectotherms throughout New Zealand, the native fauna found here are threatened by the ‘usual suspects’ - introduced pests like rats, mice, stoats, cats, possums and hedgehogs. Sara works alongside our staff during the monitoring, as well as kindly organising dinners and accommodation within the estate.

How do we look for these elusive native geckos? The team uses a torch to ‘spotlight’ for them, shining a light into bushes, ferns and on the ground to spot them. Once found, each individual is carefully measured and photographed (they each have unique markings). Everything is recorded about where and when the gecko was found including the vegetation and height above the ground, temperature, humidity, and other weather conditions. We are then able to check these photos against our database and see if we have encountered the gecko previously as they are all individually identifiable by their patterning. Up until 2014 the DOC database included only 28 sightings of this species from anywhere in the Coromandel. Today, with consistent and repeated monitoring, the Mahakirau database now includes 115 individuals, more than 80% of the known population!

Being a part of studying a species that has only relatively recently been discovered - and that I remember reading about as a kid! - has been the highlight of my career so far. It also helps that they are beautiful to look at, I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

Seth Garden, Auckland Zoo ectotherm keeper

Why is this work so important? Many of New Zealand’s native species are under-studied and therefore little is known about them. Conservationists need to study a species’ distribution, ecology and aspects of its natural history, especially its reproductive biology to understand its conservation needs.

How can you help support the survival of the northern striped gecko? Mahakirau Forest Estate are currently fundraising to develop a residential research hub which will provide more substantial accommodation for experts visiting the estate – like our ectotherm team! This in turn will provide increased prospects for research and conservation – something we wholeheartedly support. If you’re able to, please support their Give a Little campaign and share the link with your whānau so that like you, they too can support conservation in our big, beautiful backyard.