Ancient Gecko Species Sheds More Light Into Australian Desert Origins

Posted: Nov 15 2016, 4:53am CST | by , Updated: Nov 15 2016, 4:56am CST, in News | Latest Science News

 

Ancient Gecko Species Sheds More Light into Australian Desert Origins
The ancient gecko Oedura luritja had been hiding in plain sight. Credit: Steven Zozoya.
 

Ancient species of gecko sought refuge in the ranges of central Australia about 10 million years ago, a time when deserts were expanding across Australia

Researchers from Australian National University have discovered an ancient species of gecko in the iconic ranges of Central Australia. The newfound velvet gecko Oedura luritja can provide more insight into the origin of Australian deserts. 

Gecko is a reptile that exists in warm climates across the globe and is often confused with lizards and other similar looking species. But genetics revealed that these reptiles have no close living relatives.

Researchers suggest that Oedura luritja was among those animals that sought refuge in Central Australian ranges about 10 million years ago, a time when deserts were also spreading across the continent. 

“We estimate Oedura luritja separated from all living relatives about 10 million years ago. This corresponds well with other evidence that deserts were expanding across Australia at this time.” Lead researcher Dr Paul Oliver from ANU said in a statement.

"This suggests this gecko may have been isolated by this initial aridification of Australia long ago, and then persisted in its rocky refuge for millions of years. It is what we know as a relict species - something left behind after all its relatives have died out.”

New research also reveals that these reptiles are closely related to the population of velvet geckos living in the Mereenie Sandstones of the MacDonnell Ranges. To determine the evolutionary relationships between the Oedura luritja gecko and other geckos in Central Australia and elsewhere, researchers examined gecko specimen stored in the museum from 1960s to 1970s alongside newfound gecko. 

Researchers found that velvet geckos from central Australia which were previously thought to be a single species are actually two and are vastly different in their age.

“Here we use molecular phylogenetic and morphological data to show that isolated populations of saxicoline geckos in the genus Oedura from the Australian Central Uplands, formerly confounded as a single taxon, actually comprise two divergent species with contrasting histories of isolation.” Authors wrote in the study.

“The Central Uplands of Australia are considered a hotspot of localized endemic relicts stemming from widespread extinction or range contraction in surrounding regions. In support of this contention, most endemic vertebrates in the Australian Central Uplands have allopatric sister taxa or conspecific populations occurring elsewhere in arid or semi-arid Australia.

By striking contrast, our estimates of the divergence time for Oedura luritja suggest much earlier diversification around the mid- to late Miocene.”

 

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