I study geckos for my PhD at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Bangalore. More specifically, I'm trying to unravel the evolutionary history of the genus Geckoella. These small terrestrial geckos are endemic to India and Sri Lanka with 5 species distributed across peninsular India. Two species are known from the Northern and Central Western Ghats, Geckoella albofasciatus and G. deccanensis; two from the Eastern Ghats, G. nebulosus which is widely distributed and G. jeyporensis which we recently rediscovered from high elevations of the Eastern Ghats after 137 years in 2012; and G. collegalensis, known from the hills of South India.
This is the story of the rediscovery of Geckoella collegalensis, or the Kollegal ground gecko. The species was described in 1870 by a British Colonel R.H. Beddome based on one gecko from the foothills of Biligiriranga Hills (BR Hills), near Yelandur, Karnataka. In the very same paper Beddome also described Geckoella speciosus, based on a single specimen from near Erode, Tamil Nadu. The main difference between the species was the colour pattern – G. collegalensis is spotted, while G. speciosus is blotched. The two species were synonymised in 1935 by another British taxonomist, Malcolm Smith, which means taxonomists considered them to be the same species. This arrangement followed without anyone verifying if these were all indeed the same species, and Geckoella collegalensis had been reported all over South India as well as over 800 km away in parts of Maharashtra! However, no one has found this species from close to its type locality (Yelandur, from where it was first described) and in fact all the animals called Geckoella collegalensis by different workers are members of a large species complex. The only way to resolve this is by comparing specimens with the type specimen, or the specimen based on which the species was erected. However, the type specimens of both species described by Beddome in 1870 are in the British Museum of Natural History, London, making it difficult for Indian scientists to study this group.
One of the problems I wanted to try and resolve during my PhD was the Geckoella collegalensis species complex. Over the course of the study, using genetic data, I found that there are as many as 6 species in the collegalensis complex. However, I didn't know which of these was the ‘true' Geckoella collegalensis, as I couldn't compare the geckos I had found to the type specimen in London. I was planning to apply for permits to the Karnataka Forest Department, when I had a chance meeting with the then Director, BRT Tiger Reserve, Mr. Vijay Mohan Raj. The first thing I told him after we were introduced was that I wanted to survey the BR Hills for G. collegalensis, to which he replied, "I am also very interested in the Kollegal ground gecko". This was part of a program on Icons of BRT, and the enigmatic Kollegal ground gecko was picked as it has only ever been seen once before, at BRT.
I then applied for permits to survey this species, and finally, in April 2013, set off to survey the Male Mahadeshwara Hills (MM Hills), adjacent to the BR Hills. I was accompanied by two colleagues, Dr. V. Deepakand Chintan Sheth. We had just two days to survey the area, or rather two nights. The DFO Kollegal, Mr. Javed Mumtaz, was very helpful and interested in the survey as well. I planned to survey both the western and eastern slopes of MM Hills. We had left Bangalore at 6am, to make the most of our short time at MM Hills. After about 8 hours of driving and many more hours of waiting as the FD personnel were on election duty, we had finally made it out to a forest area. We waited for it to get dark and then began searching.
Geckos are easy to locate at night by their red eye-shine, visible if you hold your torch up near your line of sight. There were geckos around, but they were common species, and we kept moving to try and survey all the areas we had shortlisted. A dull red eye-shine from under some litter at the edge of a dry stream bed caught my eye. It was a beautifully patterned brown gecko with darker brown spots. Could this be the first live Geckoella collegalensis observed by a scientist after over 143 years? Through the course of the night, in just 2 hours of searching, we were able to find 3 specimens of this gecko. Over the next few months I was able to confirm that these animals from the MM Hills, just over 40 km from Yelandur, are almost certainly the species Geckoella collegalensis. This beautiful species is only known from the foothills of BRT and the MM Hills, and it is unclear if they are found in any other hill ranges. They live in dry forests at lower elevations in these areas and can be found under rocks and logs in the day and out on the ground at night.
During the short survey we were also able to observe some other interesting geckos in the MM Hills, a potentially new species each of Hemidactylus and Cnemaspis.
Much of the current conservation focuses on megafauna and is centred on just a few charismatic species. While this is undoubtedly useful in garnering public support, there is the danger of losing out on smaller animals with the juggernaut of single species specific management actions. These lesser known species make up the majority of our biodiversity and it is time for a shift toward studying and appreciating these beautiful, fascinating animals if we truly want to conserve the biodiversity of the world.