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Sometimes, they're right under your nose....

You might think we've discovered by now almost all of the large organisms in Australia, certainly the lizards and flowering plants, and that any new ones must either be in very remote places, or be very small, or both.

If you think this you'd be wrong. Sometimes new species are quite big and are right under our noses!

Frog and reptile taxonomist Conrad Hoskin and colleagues have found a new species of large gecko almost within sight of Conrad's laboratory window at the Townsville campus of James Cook University. Phyllurus pinnaclensis was described in a recent paper in the journal Zootaxa.

This new gecko, Phyllurus pinnaclensis, was discovered a few kilometres from James Cook University in Townsville. Photo: (c) Conrad Hoskin

It's remarkable that a large gecko like this can remain undiscovered right behind Townsville. In defense of Conrad and preceding herpetologists, the new species is restricted to a few remote rocky gullies that had previously escaped targeted survey attention.

Phyllurus pinnaclensis is now the third leaf-tailed gecko discovered around Townsville, along with P. amnicola, which is endemic to Mt Elliot, and P. gulbaru, which is restricted to Herveys and South Paluma Ranges. These also have tiny distributions in rocky rainforest patches that must have been persistent for very long periods.

So not one but three new species of gecko in an area not generally thought of as a biodiversity hotspot. However, despite general perceptions, Townsville is very diverse for vertebrates. For example, the Townsville Town Common has one of the highest bird lists in Australia, and the region is a stand-out for reptiles and frogs. Mount Elliot, rising to over 1200 m on the south side of town, has four endemic vertebrate species, making it as unique as any peak further north in the Wet Tropics.

A rocky rainforest gully at The Pinnacles near Townsville, where the new gecko was discovered. Photo (c) Anders Zimny

And it's not just new species of lizards that have been hiding in the hills behind JCU's Townsville campus. In 2012 a species of large tree related to the lemon myrtle was found on one rocky creek line on Mt Stuart. Backhousia tetraptera was discovered by local amateur botanist John Elliot when he noticed strange, four-winged fruits on what otherwise looked just like the common and widespread python tree (Gossia bidwillii).

A few targeted enquiries and further research in the field and herbarium by JCU botanist Dr Betsy Jackes showed that it was a highly distinctive, undescribed new species. The original population comprises fewer than 200 trees in a single gully just a kilometre or two from one of the University's research herbaria. A second population of a handful more has recently been discovered just north of the city.

These cases - a new lizard and a new tree - show that new species can still be found even in very well studied groups of large-sized organisms right next to major population centres.

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