Mystery of how geckos walk on water solved by scientists

'They can run at a metre per second over water ... geckos are superheroes,' says scientist

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Thursday 06 December 2018 17:00
Comments
Study reveals how geckos walk on water

Geckos have been observed running across the surface of water in a remarkable feat not seen in any other animals their size.

The lizards use a unique combination of adaptations to stop themselves sinking, including water-repellent skin.

Already known for walking up walls and even gliding through the air, the ability confirms geckos’ reputation as “superheroes” of the reptile world, according to the scientists studying them.

Dr Jasmine Nirody, a biophysicist at the University of Oxford, decided to investigate their abilities after a tip-off about the unusual behaviour from a fellow researcher.

Water-walking had previously been documented in some other animals, notably the basilisk or “Jesus Christ” lizard, which is able to run on its back legs across the surface.

Tiny animals such as spiders are also known to walk on water, relying on its surface tension to keep their tiny bodies from getting wet.

However, the skill had never been observed in more mid-sized creatures that lack both the diminutive size and the strength to prevent them from sinking.

This changed when Dr Ardian Jusufi, a former colleague of Dr Nirody at the University of California, Berkeley, captured footage on his phone of a flat-tailed house gecko in Singapore running across a flooded area.

High speed video was able to capture the motions the geckos used as they traversed the water surface

Dr Nirody and her colleagues were “blown away” by the video, thinking an animal of this gecko’s size should not be capable of propelling itself along the water.

To investigate further, the scientists got hold of some of these geckos, which are native to southern Asia, and proceeded to test their abilities in a tank of water.

Through a series of experiments and high-speed videos, they found the lizards were using an array of techniques to prevent themselves from sinking.

Surface tension proved vital for the small lizards, as adding soap to the tank – which breaks this tension – made it much harder for them to move in the water.

However, they also used the powerful leg-slapping seen in their basilisk lizard cousins to create air pockets that prevented them from becoming submerged.

The geckos were further aided by water-repellent skin and swift strokes of their tails that pushed them along.

“Geckos have this amazing superhydrophobic skin that repels water and enhances their ability to stay above the surface,” said Dr Nirody.

“So in addition to surface tension and slapping, they have their own special trick.”

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

All of these findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

As moving through air is easier than moving through water, sprinting across the surface is likely an effective strategy for escaping even fast-swimming predators.

“They can run at a metre per second over water. Nothing else can do that; geckos are superheroes,” said Professor Robert Full, a University of California, Berkeley scientist and senior author of the paper.

The scientists suggested that their findings could one day be used to develop robots that can mimic the geckos’ abilities.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in