Lifelike lizards are helping conservationists to highlight the plight of a critically endangered Caribbean reptile found only on the island of Barbados.
Technology has played a large part in the destruction of the natural world, but it can also play a pivotal role in nature protection and restoration. Typically, this takes the form of technology deployed in the field, from remote camera traps to satellite collars and other tracking devices, but Fauna & Flora has just added another – rather unexpected – tech tool to its armoury.
Three-dimensional (3D) printing isn’t the most obvious go-to gadget for conservationists, but that’s precisely what we used to solve a recent reptilian conundrum. FFI’s Caribbean Programme Manager, Isabel Vique, takes up the story: “When the Barbados National Museum showed an interest in having a permanent exhibit to showcase the critically endangered Barbados leaf-toed gecko, we found ourselves in a pickle. No way were we going to collect and stuff individuals from a global population made up of fewer than 250 adult lizards. Luckily, technology came to the rescue.”
The team hit upon the idea of producing replica reptiles, with spectacular results.
An intricately designed 3D replica of the Barbados leaf-toed gecko. Credit: Luis Carrera
Each gecko has been digitally designed using ZBrush and 3D Studio Max and printed out in a colour 3D printer by i.materialise. The collection will shortly be on permanent display in the museum, in the heart of historic Bridgetown.
Barbados is one of the world’s most densely populated islands and its natural habitats continue to dwindle. Habitat loss and the introduction of invasive alien species including mongooses have already proved terminal for most of the species that were unique to the island.
The Barbados leaf-toed gecko was among those believed extinct until a tiny population was rediscovered in 2011. Just 250 adult Barbados leaf-toed geckos have been confirmed in the wild, most of them clinging onto a narrow strip of the island’s rocky east coast. Even here, coastal development and non-native predators pose grave threats to the survival of the remaining reptiles.
A real-life Barbados leaf-toed gecko in its last remaining stronghold. Credit: Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora International
With input from a range of partners, including the University of West Indies, who first brought the gecko’s plight to FFI’s attention, we compiled a recovery plan for the species. We trained a small team of university students to successfully eradicate invasive rats from the islet where it was rediscovered, and set about searching for other sites where the geckos might survive. We are also supporting a young Barbadian conservationist to study the needs of the species.
Meanwhile, together with the Barbados Defence Force, the Ministry of Environment and National Beautification, Re:wild and other partners, FFI is creating a new alien-free sanctuary. This safe haven will relieve the pressure on the lizard affectionately known as the BLT gecko, which is being sandwiched between several land-based threats and the problem posed by rising sea levels.
Barbados leaf-toed geckos inhabit rocky cliff edges that provide plenty of of natural crevices. Credit: Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora International
There is tremendous scope to turn this endearing, endemic gecko into a much-needed flagship for the conservation and restoration of the island’s terrestrial ecosystems. With that in mind, we have launched a public awareness campaign to highlight the lizard’s plight and promote the protection of its habitat.
People will only protect what they love, however. And it’s hard to love what you can’t see with your own eyes. Most people, even in Barbados, have never heard of the Barbados leaf-toed gecko. And only the fortunate few have actually seen one in the flesh. How do you fire the public’s imagination if all you have to show them is a few photos of a startled lizard lit by a flashgun?
The ‘BLT’ gecko is one of the few remaining endemic species found on Barbados today. Credit: Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora International
The museum’s interest in supporting our work represented a great opportunity, but that interest was a double-edged sword. With the species on the very brink of extinction, it would have been a spectacular own goal to collect wild geckos and turn them into museum specimens.
Fortunately, the wonders of modern technology have enabled us to replicate the real thing down to the tiniest detail. But how does it work? Known in the trade as an additive manufacturing process, 3D printing creates a physical object – in this case a Barbados leaf-toed gecko replica – from a digital design. The process works by laying down thin layers of material in the form of liquid or powdered plastic, metal or cement, and then fusing the layers together.
An army of gecko replicas, ready for their new home in the Barbados National Museum. Credit: Luis Carrera
As the images demonstrate, the lizards are so lifelike that the casual observer could be fooled into thinking that the installation is part of a captive-breeding programme. FFI’s Laure Joanny, whose work is helping to protect this and other threatened Caribbean reptiles from poaching for the illegal pet trade, is among those delighted with the results: “Having seen both the sculpture and the real thing, I can confirm these are beautiful and stunningly realistic.”
If you’re planning a trip to Barbados, we recommend visiting the museum to admire the exhibit – and to marvel at the myriad ways in which new technology can help promote the conservation cause.