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Bumpy baby creature found on ‘sky islands’ in Vietnam — and discovered as new species

As evening shadows crept across the “sky islands” of Vietnam, a bumpy creature crept across the forest floor. The baby animal caught the attention of nearby scientists — and turned out to be a new species.

Researchers ventured into the Central Highlands of Vietnam to survey wildlife diversity, according to an Aug. 23 study published in the journal Evolutionary Systematics. They were searching for one specific type of animal: geckos.

The Central Highlands are a mountainous region made up of “sky islands,” upland areas “isolated from each other by vast intervening lowlands,” researchers said. Residential areas and roads also increasingly fragment the region.

While on an evening expedition, researchers spotted several bumpy geckos, two adults and two babies, the study said. They took a closer look and realized they’d discovered a new species: Dixonius fulbrighti, or the Fulbright leaf-toed gecko.

The Fulbright leaf-toed gecko can reach about 3.6 inches in size, researchers said. It has spiky bumps down its back and “well developed” claws. The gecko’s coloring varies by age and sex.

The adult male Fulbright leaf-toed gecko has a brownish coloring with black splotches and a lighter underside, photos show. The adult female, however, has a red, almost plastic-looking coloring that fades to ashy gray toward its tail and fingertips.

An adult male (top) and adult female (bottom) specimen of Dixonius fulbrighti, or Fullbright leaf-toed gecko.
An adult male (top) and adult female (bottom) specimen of Dixonius fulbrighti, or Fullbright leaf-toed gecko.

Both juvenile females were reddish, photos show. One looked similar to the adult female on its upper body but had an entirely ashy gray lower body. The other had a more uniform red-brown coloring fading to black toward its tail.

Two juvenile female Dixonius fulbrighti geckos, or Fullbright leaf-toed geckos.
Two juvenile female Dixonius fulbrighti geckos, or Fullbright leaf-toed geckos.

Researchers named the new species after J. William Fulbright, who founded the Fulbright Program, a U.S.-based international research program. Co-author Vinh Quang Luu is “supported by” this program, the study said.

The new species was identified by its body shape, color pattern and size, the study said. Statistical analysis confirmed the distinctiveness of these physical characteristics. DNA analysis also found the new species had between about 3% and 16% genetic divergence from other leaf-toed geckos.

So far, Fulbright leaf-toed geckos have only been found in Gia Lai province, researchers said. Gia Lai is a southern province, about 300 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, and along the Vietnam-Cambodia border.

“This new species discovery highlights the underestimated gecko diversity and the importance of continued fieldwork in the Central Highlands of Vietnam,” researchers said.

The research team included Vinh Quang Luu, Jesse L. Grismer, Tuoi Thi Hoang, Matthew Murdoch and L. Lee Grismer.

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