Tuatara aren’t lizards but here are 5 cool geckos that are

  1. Home
  2. /
  3. Success stories
  4. /
  5. Things you should know
  6. /
  7. Tuatara aren’t lizards but here are 5 cool geckos that...

We may be a nation of bird nerds but our native geckos are noteworthy too! There are at least 44 species of native geckos, and more continue to be discovered. From mountain ranges to a messy backyard, geckos inhabit a variety of New Zealand habitats. 

Comparing the differences in the two native lizard families: geckos and skinks.
A gecko (left) and a skink (right): the two native families of lizards in New Zealand. Image credit: Samuel Purdie

All of our native lizards, both geckos and skinks, are endemic – meaning they are found nowhere else in the world, making NZ a wonderland for herpetologists. Our geckos have unique characteristics – they give birth to live young, are typically long-lived and have adapted to our climate by going into a form of semi-hibernation in the colder months.

Nearly half of them are either endangered or threatened. Lizards can thrive when introduced predators are controlled and pet cats are owned responsibly.

So, how do you tell a gecko from a skink? You can easily distinguish between them if you look carefully. Skinks have a streamlined, tubular body and appear almost snake-like with smooth, shiny skin. Geckos have a clearly defined neck, a wide frog-like head, large eyes and velvety, loose skin. They don’t blink; instead, lick clean the clear membrane that covers their eyes.

Before you ask, the tuatara is not actually a lizard at all, but a member of its own order, Rhynchocephalia (formerly Sphenodontia), which goes back to the days of dinosaurs. 

Note: It is illegal to handle any native gecko or skink without a permit from the Department of Conservation.

Get to know a few of our extraordinary geckos:

1. Hura te ao gecko

In serious trouble

In 2018, the hura te ao gecko was discovered in an alpine outcrop in North Otago. So far, they have only been found in two mountain ranges in the Oteake Conservation Park. 

The hura te ao gecko’s Latin name is Mokopirirakau galaxias – ‘galaxias’ referring to the geckos patterning of small white spots on its body that resembles a starry night.

In te Reo Māori, ‘hura’ means ‘reveal’ but can also relate to the break of dawn. The yellow colouring around the gecko’s mouth is reminiscent of the bright sun rising as the day begins. It also refers to the idea that the gecko has revealed itself to us.

Since the discovery of the hura te ao gecko a few years ago, there have only been about 27 individuals sighted so far and there is still a lot to learn about the behaviour of this beautiful species.

Hura te ao.
Hura te ao. Image credit: Carey Knox

2. Tautuku gecko

In some trouble

Tautuku gecko
Tautuku gecko. Image credit: Carey Knox

Tautuku gecko are a highly variable species that can be beautifully patterned in grey, brown, olive, red or yellow. Tautuku gecko are also known as the blue-eyed gecko, but more often they have brown or grey eyes. The inside of their mouth is typically bright orange and their tongue is orange or pink.

These geckos can be a challenge for researchers to find and study as they live in dense forests and scrubland. They camouflage well into their environment against lichen-covered trees. 

This species is named after the Catlins’ Tautuku forest where they are found, but their exact whereabouts are kept secret to protect them from illegal removal. Sadly, New Zealand geckos are often targeted by smugglers that sell our native species illegally on the black market.

3. Elegant gecko

In some trouble

The elegant gecko is one of our green gecko (Moko kākāriki) species and is found from southern Northland to the central North Island.

They are bright green geckos that sometimes have rows of light green, white, yellow or pink markings. Occasionally, they are bright canary yellow due to a genetic condition where individuals lack a blue pigment in their chromophores – the part of molecules responsible for colour.

All green gecko species, including the elegant gecko, are solitary and can be aggressively territorial. Green geckos show aggressive behaviour by biting or gaping their blue mouths wide open. 

Elegant geckos are omnivorous but primarily eat invertebrates such as beetles, spiders and moths. They sometimes forage for berries and nectar from native flowers.

A bright yellow gecko on a branch
A bright yellow elegant gecko. Image credit: Nick Harker

4. Raukawa gecko

Doing OK

Raukawa gecko in a mossy rock.
Raukawa gecko. Image credit: Nick Harker

Raukawa geckos are grey or brown in colour. Its Latin species name is Woodworthia maculata ‘maculata’ means speckled to describe their irregular markings. Raukawa geckos are found along the north-eastern coast of the North Island and are relatively widespread across the lower North Island and northern South Island. These geckos live in a wide range of habitats in New Zealand, from coastlines to dense forests. 

Originally, the raukawa gecko was grouped under the label of a single highly-variable species called the ‘common gecko’. Today, the ‘common gecko’ has been separated into over ten species.

Raukawa geckos are a highly social species and can form large groups. Their life expectancy varies from 15-27 years. However, a recent study proposed that the Raukawa gecko may live up to 37 years old.

5. Duvaucel’s gecko (northern and southern)

Northern Duvaucel’s gecko – In some trouble / Southern Duvaucel’s gecko – In serious trouble

Once known as a single species, the Duvaucel’s gecko has recently been split into two separate species: the northern Duvaucel’s gecko and the southern Duvaucel’s gecko.

Duvaucel’s geckos were once found throughout New Zealand as far south as Otago. Today, their range is restricted to 36 offshore predator free islands. However, in 2010 a Duvaucel’s gecko was found at Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari near Cambridge indicating a mainland population of Duvaucel’s gecko may not be completely extinct. 

They are our largest gecko with a recorded specimen measuring 16 centimetres long and weighing 120 grams. They are also incredibly long-lived and have been reported to live for over 50 years.

Interestingly, the naming of Duvaucel’s gecko was a mistake! They were named after Alfred Duvaucel, a French naturalist who explored India. When specimens were brought to London, they were incorrectly attributed to him. It was only later that the geckos were found to have come from New Zealand but the name stuck.

a large gecko on a branch
Northern Duvaucel’s gecko. Image credit: Nick Harker