In March of this year, a special courier arrived in Wellington from France carrying a rather unimposing stuffed lizard for display at the National Museum. This specimen described by one commentator as “the most important visitor to New Zealand in 1990 after the Royal family” — was the centrepiece in an exhibition of New Zealand amphibians and reptiles put on by the museum as part of the sesquicentennial celebrations.
But why all the fuss and excitement about one specimen?
Within Maori tradition there are references to several kinds of large reptiles which lived in the dense forests. Kumi and ngarara are believed to be mythical, tuatara we now know to be a relict from the dinosaur era, but what was kawekaweau?
Kawekaweau (pronounced cah-way-cahway-ow, but also known as kaweau or koeau) were reported from widespread localities in the northern half of the North Island, particularly Northland. The animal was variously described as being amphibious, a ground-dweller, a tree-dweller, or even being able to fly! The most often repeated description was of a lizard about two feet long that was arboreal.
In 1871, Walter Buller wrote: “The kawekaweau, a beautiful striped lizard, sometimes attaining a length of two feet, is still undescribed. It was formerly abundant in the forests north of Auckland, and is still occasionally met with. Mr F.E. Maning (sic), of Hokianga, recently obtained possession of a pair of live ones, but unfortunately for science, one of them was devoured by a cat and the other made its escape.”
Two years later Gilbert Mair reported that a Urewera chief had killed a kawekaweau found beneath the loose bark of a rata near Whakatane. It was said to be “about two feet long, and as thick as a man’s wrist; colour brown, striped longitudinally with dull red.”
Despite these observations, no museum specimens of the kawekaweau were known to be collected, no scientific description was written, and the reports of Buller and Mair were the last to specifically refer to it. By the middle of the 20th century there were doubts that kawekaweau had ever been a biological reality, and it lapsed back into myth and legend.
Then, in 1979, Alain Delcourt, a curator at the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle in Marseille, discovered in the museum’s zoological collections a mounted specimen of a huge gecko. At 62cm it was more than half as big again as the largest previously-known gecko (a species from New Caledonia). Sadly, this specimen had no information with it indicating where, when and by whom it had been collected. There isn’t even any indication of when it arrived at the museum, although it was known to be present in 1902 when the collections were re‑ catalogued.
Realising the significance of the specimen, Delcourt sent photographs of his find to America for possible identification. These eventually came to the attention of Aaron Bauer and Tony Russell, specialists in gecko taxonomy. From close examination of its scales and skeleton, Bauer and Russell were able to determine that the specimen in Marseille belonged in a group of geckos, the Carphodactylini, that occur only in New Zealand, New Caledonia and the eastern seaboard of Australia. Furthermore, they were certain that it was a species of Hoplodactylus, a genus known only from New Zealand. To obtain further evidence, Bauer visited New Zealand in 1984 to examine other Hoplodactylus species, and was astonished to discover the Maori and early Pakeha accounts of large forest lizards. In 1986 the Marseille specimen was named Hoplodactylus delcourti in honour of its discoverer.
When and how the Marseille specimen got to France is unknown. French expeditions have visited New Zealand since the earliest times of European exploration. There have been French missions and French settlements. Marseille was regarded as the “gateway to the Orient”, and was the home port for most voyages to this part of the world. Biological specimens from collectors and curios from seamen would pass through Marseille on their way into France. The huge gecko was probably acquired by the museum between 1833 and 1869, a period for which all the records have been lost.
One aspect of the kawekaweau accounts that had always puzzled the sceptics was the apparent lack of sub-fossil evidence for the existence of a large lizard in New Zealand. Sub-fossil bones of tuatara and many of the bigger lizard species now extinct on the mainland are frequently found in cave deposits, yet bones large enough to be from the kawekaweau had never been recognised. However, in the 1870s bones had been collected from Otago that could be from just such a creature. One was a pleurodont reptilian jaw similar in size to that of a large tuatara (60cm); the other was a tiny curved bone presumed at the time to be the rib of a kumi. Reassessment of the “rib” indicates it is probably a cloacal bone (paired bones occurring in the genitalia of male geckos) and, from its size (14mm), also came from an animal about 60cm long.
Can the Marseille specimen be regarded as tangible proof of the elusive kawekaweau? It is certainly the size of those reported by Buller and Mair, and it, too, is brown with reddish-brown stripes. The Marseille gecko is clearly an arboreal species, and kawekaweau were said to live in trees. But what still has to be demonstrated beyond doubt is that it has come from New Zealand. Now that the exhibition has closed, the big gecko will be the subject of a great deal of scientific attention before its return to France — research that scientists hope will prove that this unique specimen is indeed part of our fauna