Scientists uncover 14 new gecko species within a single subspecies

Muscat - 

A groundbreaking study has uncovered an unparalleled degree of species-level diversification in an Arabian vertebrate, identifying 14 species within a single subspecies of gecko inhabiting an area of less than 25,000sq km.

Despite being one of the most abundant reptile found in southern Arabia, the population of Pristurus rupestris rupestris (little gecko that lives in Al Hajar Mountains) has always been considered as a single, morphologically uniform subspecies. Until the latest study conducted by Dr Salvador Carranza found out that what was supposed to be one subspecies is, in fact, a species complex that contains up to 14 different species.

The study was conducted by Dr Carranza, who has been carrying out research on reptile fauna in the sultanate for more than a decade, along with Joan Garcia-Porta (the first author of the current study), and Marc Simo-Riudalbas, all from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Barcelona, and Michael Robinson from the Sultan Qaboos University.

“Nobody had discovered this before because the different species look very similar to each other (are morphologically cryptic) and this diversity only came to light when we applied molecular methods, which helped us to uncover all this hidden diversity,” Dr Carranza told Muscat Daily in an email interview from Barcelona.

Simplifying the research, Dr Carranza said, “In principle we have discovered 14 new species. We have not described them yet, as we want to do more analyses using other complementary molecular markers and study their morphology, ecology and behaviour.”

He added that the discovery once again puts the Al Hajar Mountains in the spotlight and shows that, despite being classified as a “desert mountain” for its aridity, it is one of the mountain ranges in the world with the highest level of reptile endemicity, something to be proud of. The study demonstrates that arid mountains may constitute important reservoirs of cryptic diversity, even in common and widespread species.

“This, and previous evidence, suggest that Al Hajar Mountains are a biological hotspot and an important reservoir of diversity. We therefore suggest that these mountains should be a priority focal point for conservation in Arabia,” wrote Garcia-Porta in the study. On the conservation, Dr Carranza added that the sultanate already has several protected areas in Al Hajar Mountains, including one in Jebel Akhdar, “the most biodiversity rich area of the whole mountain range (and in the whole of Arabia)”.

“Moreover, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs is very concerned about the biodiversity of the sultanate and is working to preserve it for future generations,” he concluded.

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