Length: SVL up to 98mm, with the tail being longer than the body length
Weight: up to 16 grams
A widespread and variable gecko with intricate bark-like patterns. Forest geckos are one of the more commonly-encountered geckos in the upper North Island and north-western South Island but are in decline over most of their range.
Although belonging to one variable species, they can be defined into three distinct populations based on a mix of morphological traits. These are as follows:
North Island, and northern South Island (Marlborough Sounds):
Their dorsal colouration varies from dark or reddish-brown to pale grey. The dorsal pattern consists of a series of black and white irregular transverse blotches. The head usually has a dark, thin, V-shaped mark between the eyes. The belly is grey and heavily botched. Forest geckos are capable of rapid changes in the shade of their dorsal colouration. This may be for the purpose of thermoregulation (darker colours absorb heat faster) to enhance their camouflage with the background (a dark brown animal taken from the leaf litter may become significantly paler, and grey, when placed on a lighter coloured branch). The lining of the mouth is yellow to orange, the tongue is pink, yellow or bright orange. The mouth is edged prominently with white scales. Eyes are grey, olive green, or brown, sometimes with a blue sheen. Soles of feet are yellow, toes have slightly expanded pads with 11-14 lamellae. The toes of northern animals are slightly shorter and broader than those from the South Island.
May be confused with Pacific geckos (Dactylocnemis pacificus) in the upper North Island. However, can be distinguished by the yellow (versus pink) mouth colour, and series of 'W' shaped markings along the dorsum versus the usually more blotched pattern in Pacific geckos.
Nelson Lakes (Cupola Gecko):
A rare and sparse population that was once thought to be its own species. This population is characterised by its light and dark grey dorsal patterning, with some individuals exhibiting striking patches of orange and red. A unique feature amongst this population is the strong head markings which consist of a distinctive V-shaped marking behind the eyes, as well as a T-shaped marking running from the nostrils to the eyes. As with the northern populations these geckos exhibit W-shaped markings which run down the back, however, in some individuals these markings tend to break up and form two (sometimes uneven) rows of V-shaped markings instead. As with the dorsal surfaces, the lateral surfaces are marked by alternating patches of light and dark grey tones, this continues onto the ventral surface (belly) where it fades to a uniform light grey with some black speckling.
Although morphologically similar to northern populations, forest geckos from the West Coast of the South Island can for the most part be distinguished from northern populations by their robustness of build, and differences in colouration. These populations (especially in more mountainous terrain e.g., alpine/sub-alpine zones) often exhibit much more vibrant colouration, with animals within these populations showcasing bright orange, or dull red blotching on the dorsal surfaces, compared to the yellow tones often seen in the northern populations.
Captive animals have been known to live for 40+ years.
Northern North Island (excluding Aupouri Peninsula) to Taranaki and Bay of Plenty, and north-western South Island from Marlborough to Nelson, south to Westland. Present on larger islands: Great Barrier, Little Barrier, Waiheke. Also known from some islands in the Marlborough Sounds such as Maud Island, Nukuwaiata, Long Island and Blumine Island.
Ecology and habitat
Forest gecko are generally nocturnal but will sun bask near retreats. However, forest gecko in the upper north island are often active during the day. An arboreal species which live in forest and scrub in leatherwood and shrub areas, as well as beech forest, mixed broadleaf, podocarp forest, and manuka scrub. The species has been recorded in high altitudes (up to 1400m). It has been found in windshorn shrubs and will often shelter beneath rocks.
Social structure and vocalisation
Mokopirirakau species are generally solitary. Vocalisation among Mokopirirakau can be described as chirrups or shrill squeals when stressed.
Forest geckos usually mate in autumn or spring, and give birth to twins the following year in mid to late summer (February).
Forest geckos are omnivorous and their diet consists primarily of invertebrates such as flies, beetles, spiders and moths. They will often ‘sit and wait’ for invertebrates, however will actively forage for prey as well as soft berries and nectar from native flowers within their home range.
The nematode Skrjabinodon poicilandri has been recorded in forest gecko. Mites are a common parasite for Mokopirirakau.
Forest geckos are listed by DOC as 'At Risk - Declining'. The species has a large national population but is in chronic decline. Forest geckos are generally absent from small offshore islands and therefore most populations are subject to pressures of introduced pest predators and habitat loss.
"Moko-piri-rakau" is the Maori name for forest gecko, and means 'lizards that clings to trees.'
Previously thought to be a unique species; Cupola geckos were first reported in the 1960s but it was not until early 2021 (after multiple failed survey attempts) that herpetologists finally managed to locate wild individuals and take samples to investigate their evolutionary relationship with the rest of the Mokopirirakau genus. The analysis of the animal's mitochondrial DNA suggested that they sat within the forest gecko species, however, it has been suggested that as they seem to be morphologically distinct that this may be a result of past hybridisation and that testing nuclear DNA may further clarify the situation (pers.comm Nick Harker).
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