Finding van Gogh in nature: a new gecko species unveiled by scientists

Credit: Photos by Akshay Khandekar, ZooKeys (2024)

Imagine wandering through the lush landscapes of the Southern Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, India, where the vibrant hues of nature blend seamlessly with the rich biodiversity.

In this verdant paradise, a group of scientists from the Thackeray Wildlife Foundation embarked on an expedition that would lead them to an extraordinary discovery—a discovery that beautifully marries the worlds of art and science.

As they delved deeper into this biodiverse haven in April 2022, their eyes caught sight of something truly remarkable on the back of a lizard. The patterns and colors adorning its skin bore an uncanny resemblance to Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece, “The Starry Night.”

The swirls of blue and the speckles of light mirroring the iconic painting’s night sky prompted an immediate and fitting tribute. The lizard was christened Cnemaspis vangoghi, honoring the Dutch painter whose work continues to inspire awe and wonder.

Cnemaspis vangoghi is not just any lizard; it’s a testament to the serendipitous moments of discovery that can occur when exploring the natural world.

Males of the species boast a striking appearance, with a yellow head and forebody punctuated by light blue spots along the back. This new species shares its home with rocks, occasionally gracing the walls of buildings and the branches of trees with its presence.

The discovery was made by Ishan Agarwal, Akshay Khandekar, and Tejas Thackeray during their dedicated exploration of Tamil Nadu’s diverse ecosystems. Their findings, published in the journal ZooKeys, underscore Tamil Nadu’s status as a hotspot of biodiversity.

Agarwal, reflecting on the experience, shared their ambitious goal to identify over 50 new species of lizards in the region.

However, the journey was not without its challenges, as Agarwal recounted enduring more than 500 tick bites during that summer’s expedition, particularly in the arid forests of Srivilliputhur, where Cnemaspis vangoghi was discovered.

This small-sized gecko, reaching up to 3.4 cm in length, was introduced to the scientific community alongside another new species, Cnemaspis sathuragiriensis, named after its habitat, the Sathuragiri Hills.

Both species are found in the low elevation deciduous forests of Srivilliputhur, enriching the list of endemic vertebrates known from the Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve.

Cnemaspis vangoghi and its counterpart are diurnal creatures, thriving in the cooler hours of dawn and dusk, primarily residing on rocks. Their discovery highlights the phenomenon of micro-endemism, where species are confined to very specific, small geographic areas.

This trait underscores the importance of conservation efforts to protect these unique creatures and their habitats.

The story of Cnemaspis vangoghi is a beautiful reminder of the unexpected ways in which art and nature can intersect, offering new perspectives on the world around us.

It’s a celebration of discovery, named in honor of a painter who captured the imagination of the world, now linked forever to a small lizard in the forests of Tamil Nadu, embodying the essence of “The Starry Night” in its very being.

The research findings can be found in ZooKeys.

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