Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An Alien Visits a Freshman English Classroom - Juvenile Mediterranean House Gecko

Recently in the second floor classroom at Campbell University where my wife teaches freshman English classes, a college student noticed a small wild non-student tumbling about in a back corner of the room behind an audiovisual equipment cart. Together they shepherded the dust covered creature into an empty fast food drink cup.   They sent me these two pictures via text prior to my wife bringing the alien home.

Below is the little alien walking on the side of a Sonic drink cup.

Looking at its unique toes, it did not take long to identify this cute little reptile as a gecko.  Besides its toes, I noted its banded tail, the dark mottled spots on its tan skin, and in particular, the presence of many tubercles (wart-like bumps) covering its body.  I had not known that there were geckos living in North Carolina, but a little searching on Google led me to the following links that show that the Mediterranean House Gecko has established scattered residences across many of the southern states of the United States.  

Mediterranean House Geckos can grow to about 6 inches in length.  Like other geckos, their eyes have no lids and their pupils are elliptical like a cat's.  Without eyelids, a gecko must keep its eyes clean and moist by licking them periodically with its tongue.  I read that "their eyes are 350 times more sensitive to light than humans".

Geckos are insectivores with exceptionally keen night vision. At times they can be found around outside lights where insects often gather.   

Geckos have unique feet and toes that are adapted for climbing to reach their prey. The underside of each toe is covered with a few dozen pad-like lamella which in turn are covered with thousands of tiny hair-like structures, called setae, that allow many species of geckos to climb vertical walls, and even scurry across ceilings in their search for food.  Some geckos can even climb on glass surfaces.

Once the young gecko was home, I went to buy small meal-worms and a tube of flightless fruit flies.  Right away I could tell the small meal-worms were way too large, almost half the length of the gecko's torso.  We sprinkled several fruit flies into the gecko's enclosure.  Eventually we observed the little reptile eat four or five fruit flies that ventured too close to the gecko's quick tongue.

To get a sense of size I took this picture with three coins, an American penny, a Thai 50 satang (one-half baht), and a Thai 10 baht.

This species of gecko is originally a native to southern Europe, but has successfully established itself in many places along the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, as well as across Central America and the southern United States.

I learned from Jeff Beane at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences that there were several known populations of Mediterranean House Geckos in North Carolina.  He listed an area in downtown Raleigh, an apartment complex in Chapel Hill, somewhere in Wilmington, and a large population at East Cary Middle School that may have gotten its start 30 years ago when a few individuals escaped from a collection in a science room.

My wife also learned from a biology professor at Campbell University, that a few of these geckos have been seen around campus over the past five years.  We read that these geckos tend to associate with human dwellings, particularly large collections of dwellings, like schools and apartments, where there are plenty of places to hide during the day and plenty of insects to dine on at night.

The NC Museum of Natural Science will keep this little gecko in hopes of learning more about where the Campbell University population of Mediterranean House Geckos originated.

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