New tiny gecko species named after Vincent van Gogh

Its light spots and deep color reminded scientists of The Starry Night.
a gecko with spots and a brown back
Cnemaspis vangoghi can be spotted during the cool, early morning hours in a mountainous and rainforest covered region in southern India. Akshay Khandekar

Scientists have discovered a new species of gecko named for post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. A team of scientists from the Thackeray Wildlife Foundation were exploring the Southern Western Ghats in southern India when they came across this unusual lizard. The back of Cnemaspis vangoghi reminded them of one of the world’s most famous paintings. The new species is described in a study published March 27 in the journal ZooKeys

Cnemaspis vangoghi is named for Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) as the striking colouration of the new species is reminiscent of one of his most iconic paintings, The Starry Night,” study co-author and biologist Ishan Agarwal said in a statement

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. The Dutch post-impressionist painted it in June 1889. CREDIT: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The males of this species boast a yellow head and forebody, with light blue spots on their back. They live among the rocks in this mountainous and rainforest covered region and occasionally are found on buildings and trees. Scientists don’t currently know what Cnemaspis vangoghi eats, but other geckos eat crickets, earthworms, waxworms, mealworms, moths, fruit flies, or grasshoppers. Some geckos will also eat fruit, including papaya, pineapple, and grapes. 

[Related: This tiny robot grips like a gecko and scoots like an inchworm.]

Genetic sequencing helped the team determine that this is a new species of gecko. There are roughly 1,500 known gecko species around the world. These lizards are found on every continent except for Antarctica, but are especially prevalent in warmer climates. Ishan Agarwal and colleagues Akshay Khandekar and Tejas Thackeray found the new species during an April 2022 expedition in Tamil Nadu, India. 

a small gecko with a blue and brown body and light blue spots
Cnemaspis vangoghi can mostly be found among rocks and is one one to two inches long. CREDIT: Akshay Khandekar.

“Tamil Nadu is an exceptionally biodiverse state and we expect to name well over 50 new species of lizards by the time we are done [with our expeditions]!,” said Agarwal. “I also had more than 500 tick bites during that summer trip, with the highest densities in the low-elevation, dry forests of Srivilliputhur, where the new species are found.”

Cnemaspis vangoghi is a small gecko that can get up to only one to two inches in length. The largest known gecko in the world is the New Caledonian gecko. They are exclusively found on the islands of New Caledonia in the South Pacific and can grow up to 14 inches long. 

[Related: This 6-inch-long Jurassic creature does a great lizard impersonation.]

Cnemaspis vangoghi was described as new to science with another species in the same genus named Cnemaspis sathuragiriensis. This other gecko is named for its locality the Sathuragiri Hills.

a gecko with a blue head and grown back and some more muted spots
Scientists also discovered another gecko named Cnemaspis sathuragiriensis. CREDIT: Akshay Khandekar.

“The two new species are distributed in low elevation [820 to 1,312 feet], deciduous forests of Srivilliputhur, and add to the five previously known endemic vertebrates from Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve, Tamil Nadu, India,” said Agarwal.

Both species are also diurnal, meaning they are primarily active during the cool hours in the early morning. They have only been found in very restricted locations, which makes them an  “an interesting case of micro-endemism in low-elevation species,” according to Agarwal.