When we think of geckos, the chatty little guy peddling Geico car insurance comes to mind. Or the green flash skittering across the wall on your tropical vacation. But there's much more to geckos, according to Tony Gamble, a University of Minnesota graduate student with the Bell Museum.
Gamble, 37, studies the evolutionary history of geckos, in particular their notoriously sticky toes. Believe it or not, he says, the gecko's dime-sized feet can suspend a 250-pound man from a ceiling. Scientists are developing a synthetic adhesive based on gecko toes -- it's already being used to make surgical closures -- and Gamble's evolutionary research may help.
While discussing his studies, including his recent discovery of a new gecko family, Gamble frames science in terms more of us can understand.
Q What makes geckos more interesting than other species?
A What doesn't? I think part of it is their personalities. Most don't have eyelids so they have these big giant eyes that never move, just stare unwaveringly at you. They are also just extraordinarily diverse in shape and size, going from tiny to really beefy and big. They live everywhere from hot deserts, to rain forests, to cool mountains. There are 1,100 described species, and every year there are oodles more being discovered. You can never get bored with geckos.
Q How did you start studying them?
A I've been interested in reptiles for almost as long as I can remember. I had pet geckos as a kid. That got me charged up.
Q Tell me about this new family of gecko you've discovered.
A It's actually a new grouping not previously recognized, called phyllodactyidae. There are about 103 species in the family, found in North Africa, the Middle East, North and South America and the Caribbean. They range from endangered species to some common in the pet trade like the white-spot, crocodile and fan-fingered geckos.
Q What does the discovery of the new gecko family mean to the science world?
A When you know how organisms are related it tells you a lot about their biology. Things that are closely related should have similar biological characteristics. A lot of assumptions that had been made about how their sticky toes evolved were wrong. Rearranging how we know these things are related makes us rethink everything else.
Q Huh? My science knowledge is a little rusty.
A Think about cars, for example. Toyotas have a certain way of manufacturing cars. So if you've worked on one Toyota, you can come upon another type, even if you've never looked under the hood, because you've worked on other Toyotas. Whereas, if someone brings in a Chevy and you're a Toyota specialist, you can say you don't know anything about it. But, if Toyota made it even though it's got a Chevy label on it, you could probably figure out some things from past experience. That's what biologists do. They'll focus on a few species and make generalizations. But if you all of a sudden take away the assumptions that these things are actually not closely related, all those other assumptions have to fall apart.
Q What kinds of changes will this bring?
A The big thing everyone cares about with geckos is their toes because they have economic importance and biomimicry. Now all of a sudden we have the exact same two separate toes from two different lineages. This is going to be important for engineers building spiderman suits for the military. If they want a suit that can climb brick walls but not glass buildings, we all of a sudden have replicates. So if you're going up a certain rock face, here are three different lineages of geckos that have evolved toes to go up rocks just like this. So maybe you want to look at these three different things and see what they did in common.
Q What else have you learned while studying the evolutionary history of geckos?
A I've done field work in Namibia, Brazil and Peru, and we're finding a lot of these species are much older than we anticipated, like 30 million years old. When a species goes extinct the idea had been that even though we can't get it back, we can replace that diversity in another 100,000 years. But the replacement time could actually be 20 million years. From a conservation standpoint, it makes species more valuable. It's one thing to throw out a piece of work by an artist who's still alive; but, if it's by someone who died 500 years ago like a Da Vinci, that's a million times worse. When we actually know how old these species are, it should make people think twice about extinction.
Q Why is it important for people to know about your research?
A We're using public money, and the public should know how it's spent. It's really easy for people to say, "Why are we giving money to go study geckos when we can be feeding the homeless?"
Q What do you think of the Geico Gecko?
A I would love it if Geico would give me some money. They give money to zoos for conservation. Man, we'd tell them, we'll name a species after you. If you want your CEO to have his name immortalized in this species, we'll do it. So far they haven't discovered our corner of the world. I think of lizard names as brand names. It's an iguana, a chameleon or a gecko. If it can't fit into one of those categories, it's off the radar.
Q You bear an uncanny resemblance to Kevin Spacey. Do you get that a lot?
A Last week I was at one of the parking ramps, and this guy's always staring at me. He finally said, "Dude you look like Kevin Spacey. I bet you get that all the time." I was like "Yeah, I do." I would much rather look like George Clooney. But, there's worse people. I guess I could look like Willem Dafoe.
Hilary Dickinson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for Star Tribune.