An expedition to a remote part of northern Australia has uncovered three new vertebrate species isolated for millions of years, with scientists yesterday calling the area a “lost world.”
Conrad Hoskin from James Cook University and a National Geographic film crew were dropped by helicopter onto the rugged Cape Melville Range on Cape York Peninsula earlier this year and were amazed at what they found.
The finds included a bizarre looking leaf-tail gecko, a gold-colored skink and a brown-spotted, yellow boulder-dwelling frog, none of which had ever been seen before.
“The top of Cape Melville is a lost world. Finding these new species up there is the discovery of a lifetime. I’m still amazed and buzzing from it,” said Hoskin, a tropical biologist from the Queensland-based university. “Finding three new, obviously distinct vertebrates would be surprising enough in somewhere poorly explored like New Guinea, let alone in Australia, a country we think we’ve explored pretty well.”
The virtually impassable mountain range is home to millions of black granite boulders the size of cars and houses piled hundreds of meters high. While surveys had previously been conducted in the boulder fields around the base of Cape Melville, a plateau of boulder-strewn rainforest on top identified by satellite imagery had remained largely unexplored.
Within days of arriving, the team had discovered the three new species, as well as a host of other interesting finds that Hoskins said may also be new to science.
The highlight was the leaf-tailed gecko, a “primitive-looking” 20cm-long creature that is an ancient relic from a time when rainforest was more widespread in Australia.
The Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko, which has huge eyes and a long, slender body, is highly distinct from its relatives and has been named Saltuarius eximius, Hoskin said, with the findings detailed in the international journal Zootaxa.
“The second I saw the gecko I knew it was a new species. Everything about it was obviously distinct,” he said.
The Cape Melville shade skink is also restricted to moist rocky rainforest on the plateau and is highly distinct from its relatives.
The third discovery was named the blotched boulder-frog, which during the dry season lives deep in the labyrinth of the boulder field, where conditions are cool and moist, allowing female frogs to lay their eggs in wet cracks in the rocks. The tadpoles develop within the egg and a fully formed frogs hatch out.
“What’s really exciting about this expedition is that in a place like Australia, which people think is fairly well explored, there are still places like Cape Melville, where there are all these species to discover,” National Geographic photographer Tim Laman said.