My mother, an optometrist, once told me about a condition that can develop following a common cold or infection in which your eyelashes and eyelids crust over. It’s called blepharitis. Since I’ve always been fascinated by the etymology of words, I immediately remembered this eye condition when I first encountered the leaf-litter gecko’s genus name — Lepidoblepharis — and soon afterward I learned the leaf-litter gecko’s alias: the scaly-eyed gecko. The “blepharo” portion of both terms comes from a Greek word for “eyelid.” Now do you see why I’m so fascinated by etymology?
However, I doubt you’ll be able to see whether these geckos have scaly eyes unless you bring a magnifying glass with you on your hike through the Panamanian jungle. These geckos are so minuscule and well-camouflaged, you’ll be lucky if you can pick one out among the leafy detritus of the forest floor.
A number of similar species found throughout Central and South America, including Panama’s leaf-litter gecko, belong to this genus of dwarf geckos. In early 2010, a new species was discovered in Ecuador to the delight and amazement of biologists: Lepidoblepharis buschwaldii is so tiny, he “can perch comfortably atop a pencil eraser, even as an adult.”
The leaf-litter gecko of Panama is not much larger than his Ecuadorian cousin, rarely exceeding 2 inches in body length. His smooth, velvety skin is a mottled blend of brown, white, black, and red stripes and spots. Notice how his tail differs slightly in color from the rest of his body. This tail provides an important defense mechanism by detaching when the gecko is fleeing a predator. The dropped tail may distract the pursuing bird, snake, or margay long enough for the gecko to disappear into the underbrush, or in the event of a close call, it may be left in the enemy’s clutch while the tail-less gecko squirms away.
Isla Palenque in Panama is home to the leaf-litter gecko; the wet forests and cacao groves on the island are his preferred habitat. As you head down one of the low-impact nature trails on the island, slow down your hike and carefully observe your surroundings. A tangle of branches overhead perforates the bright, beaming sunshine to create a dappled patchwork of light and dark on the forest floor. It’s a feast for the senses – the jasmine-like fragrance of frangipani blooms, a flash of color as a vivid tanager takes flight, and brilliant green growth everywhere. It’s difficult to focus very long on a single point within the rich, complex jungle ecosystem, but it’s worth your while to try.
Pretend the brown, white, black, and green shapes are an optical illusion puzzle waiting to be deciphered, and train your vision on the underbrush, looking for movement. You may be able to crack the camouflage of one of Panama’s coolest wildlife species: the leaf-litter gecko.