Many people have only heard of the satanic leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus) from a photo floating around online.
This picture is claimed to be of a normal satanic leaf-tailed gecko, however, the animal in the image has a pair of leathery wings.
So, does the leaf-tailed gecko really have wings?
Satanic leaf-tailed geckos do not have wings. In fact, no living terrestrial vertebrate has 6 limbs like the animal in the image. It is a photoshop.
The famous image is actually a photoshop. It came from Reddit, on a board where users use photoshop to create images of new animals.
The famous image is a combination of a satanic leaf-tailed gecko with the wings of a flying fox, a large bat. In its original context, it is obvious this is only an exercise in photo manipulation.
So, why was this passed around like a real gecko? Simply put, it became popular on Twitter back in 2013. It was tweeted out by the Game of Thrones Twitter and has spread from there.
Most reposts do not mention that this is photoshop. This has led to the myth spreading. If you google the species, the fake image shows up in the suggested images.
Thankfully, there are other examples, but this does mean that the image is still circulating.
There is always a worry when a species becomes popular online. Some people will buy an animal solely because they see it online.
If they are expecting a winged lizard, they will be disappointed. This species is also fragile and hard to care for unless you are an expert – see my complete care guide for satanic leaf tailed geckos here in case you are interested in keeping one.
Many animals that can be found for sale are wild-caught. Wild-caught lizards are far more fragile. You should always research any animal before you buy it. A
n unprepared or inexperienced owner will kill this species. They are easily stressed and injured. For instance, the species needs a soft substrate and no feeding dish.
This is because they dive for their prey and a hard surface can harm them. They also have very different needs for vitamins and supplements even compared to other geckos in the same genus.
Like all terrestrial vertebrates, satanic leaf-tailed geckos have 4 legs. This is because they are tetrapods, animals that have 4 legs.
Even animals that have lost limbs like snakes are still considered tetrapods since their ancestors did have them at some point. Wings in vertebrates like birds and bats are modified legs.
These are the front legs in the surviving birds while the hind limbs are still legs.
Some species of primitive birds had four wings, and there was a singular species (Sharovipteryx mirabilis) of reptile that had a rear membrane used to glide. However, no living or fossil animal has had six limbs.
This is simply because of the common ancestor of all land vertebrates. The first vertebrates on land were from the family of lobe-finned fishes (Sarcopterygii) with paired sets of fleshy fins.
The direct ancestors of the land tetrapods of today had modified pectoral and pelvic fins that contain very similar bones to ours.
In fact, if you look at the skeleton of these fossils, you will see bones that may look familiar. Over time, different animals used these same bones in different sizes and joints to eventually create the incredible diversity you see today.
Generally, the process of gradual change by tiny changes in the DNA of a species works only on features that exist. If a species loses a feature, it typically will not develop it again.
Flightless birds typically will not evolve flight and limbless animals will not regain limbs millions of years in the future.
Since the common ancestor of tetrapods only had four fins, you won’t see animals with more than 6 limbs on land aside from arthropods, arachnids, and similar invertebrates.
Lizards With Gliding ‘Wings’
There are reptiles that can glide, but none currently have powered flight. The agamic lizards in the Draco genus. They use elongated ribs controlled by the muscles used for breathing to create a surface that can catch air.
They use their forelimbs to control their glide, while their legs and the movement of the animal can generate enough lift that they lose little height.
The longest recorded flight was 200 feet with only 33 feet lost in height. That is quite a distance for an 8-inch-long lizard!
There is also a genus of “flying snakes”, the genus Chrysopelea. These snakes will slither straight off a branch and glide to another spot.
This helps them escape predators and move through the trees they live in. They use the mobile ribs common in snakes to create a concave surface on their belly.
The shape helps create low pressure above the snake. This means they generate lift!
Satanic leaf-tailed geckos do live in trees, but they stay low to the ground. They move slowly and rarely make leaps unless they are hunting. As you can see, they cannot fly.
McGuire, J.A. and Dudley, R., 2011. The biology of gliding in flying lizards (genus Draco) and their fossil and extant analogs. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 51(6), pp.983-990.
McGuire, J.A. and Dudley, R., 2005. The cost of living large: comparative gliding performance in flying lizards (Agamidae: Draco). The American Naturalist, 166(1), pp.93-106.
This image is a great demonstration of why you should do your research if you see something unusual online. People can pass on false information without ever knowing it.
Satanic leaf-tailed geckos are already strange enough without being given wings. This animal is currently threatened with extinction thanks to deforestation and capture for the pet trade.
They are fascinating little animals that rely on their resemblance to a leaf to avoid predators.
If you have any questions or comments about the species, please leave them below.