Nature Diary 3: cold-blooded ceiling sticker

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The pega pega from Africa (Hemidactylus mabouia) hanging upside down from the ceiling.

The lamps on our porch are inhabited for years already by a family of reptiles which usually show themselves to the outside world only at night. The little lizards are no more than 12 cm long, including the tail, and look quite special. Once they emerge from their dwelling at night it is remarkable to note that the animals appear almost transparent. These small geckos, locally known as ‘pega pega’s’, choose the most unlikely places to house themselves in. And our lamps are one of those places. It is an ideal home for the animals. Not only is it nice and warm, moist and cozy, but dinner literally flies directly towards them, like a buffet to choose from.

Horror Stories

On Curaçao, these animals are not really appreciated, because lots of horror stories are told in relation to these critters. There is this assumption that they, if they would drop from the ceiling on top of you, will attach themselves to you with suction cups, in such a firm way that only brute force can remove them. This belief is related to the story that the animals do have such suction cups on the bottom of their feet, allowing them, against gravity, to hang upside down from the ceiling. Nothing is further from the truth. The animals have no suction cups under their feet at all, but small scales that grab and hold on to small irregularities that are always present on the surface of ceilings and walls. It is amazing to see how these small guests can play and hunt for insects seemingly effortlessly in an upside down position. It sometimes happens that one of those animal loses its grip because of a miscalculation and will hit the floor with a slap, in general ending up on its legs right side up, but if any unlucky human happens to be at that very location the animal will end up on top of him or her. However, the terror lies mostly in the fact that the animals feel creepy cold when they hit your bare skin.

On closer observation, patterns can be observed on their skin in the shape of dark spots or stripes. The nails also help with the acrobatic skills of the animals.

Cold blood?

Pega pega’s are cold-blooded, just like all other reptiles. That does not mean that the animals really do have cold blood, however. It might happen that the temperature of the blood of these animals reaches higher levels than we are accustomed to in humans. The cold-bloodedness has to do with the fact that the animals do not have the ability to regulate their temperature themselves to keep it constant, like mammals do, including humans. Reptiles need external heat sources to warm up their blood and keep its temperature adequate. Only when this has been taken care of they have the energy to engage in everyday activities such as foraging and reproduction.

Many reptiles, including iguanas, are active during the day and make good use of the heat from the sun to warm up. The pega pega is a nocturnal animal, which is practically inactive during daytime hours. It must therefore seek another source of heat to get going, so artificial lights, including those in and around our homes are ideal. No wonder that the pega pega family inhabits our lamp. The relatively small space remains quite warm during the day and during the evening they have a power source nearby, in case it is needed.

Lamp = food

The main reason for the animal to live near a lamp, especially one that is switched on regularly during the night, however, is food supply. The light attracts a diversity of insects, like moths, fireflies, small cockroaches, beetles, mosquitoes, bees, grasshoppers and even dragonflies. The pega pega’s lie in wait until an edible insect arrives in the neighborhood and they make good use of the artificial glare of the lamps to be able to seize their prey easily. The prey is immediately devoured and as the evening progresses, you see the transparent belly of the pega pega’s increasingly getting darker in color as they are filling up. And this nicely illustrates the usefulness of these creatures, they eat large quantities of insects per night and thus help to keep our porch free from them.

The local gecko species (Phyllodactylus martini) that is being displaced by the African gecko. The animals are pretty easy to tell apart if you look closely. Not only has the local species more color but its feet are totally different. The Curaçao gecko has T-shaped toes while the African one round toes.

Invasive, unfortunately

There is a disadvantage to the animals described above, however, it is an invasive species. This means that the species did not originally occur on the island and has such impact on the local nature that it causes local species to diminish in numbers, with the risk they’ll eventually die out. The transparent pega pega that inhabits practically every house on Curacao originally came from Africa where it occurs in tropical regions around the Sahara. The animal was imported in several countries including the Caribbean and South America. Because it is very good at hiding among leaves, stones and tree bark, it has, through the export and import of plants, spread out even further in various countries all over the world.
Because the animals are not only more aggressive in chasing away potential competitors who prey on the same food, and will even consume other gecko species in the absence of regular food, they are a threat to the local gecko species we have on the island. The result is that local species can hardly be found in and around our homes.

About Michelle da Costa Gomez

2 Responses to “Nature Diary 3: cold-blooded ceiling sticker”

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  1. Nicole says:

    Thank you for sharing this nice picture with me. I have them in my kitchen and in my bathroom. He does a nice job removing unwanted little flies. Do you have a picture of the Colebra di mispel that species is now hard to find.

    • Leon Pors says:

      You are not the first to ask for a picture of this small, but beautiful lizard. We are working on it!