At last count, there are six different species of gecko on St. Martin. Some of them are tiny, about three centimeters long. The Tropical House Gecko is medium-sized and commonly seen climbing walls and eating insects attracted to porch lights. By comparison, the Spotted Woodslave is a monster—up to 20 centimeters overall—with a stout body and thick tail.
Many people are not familiar with the Spotted Woodslave. It is rarely seen around homes and it spends its days hiding, coming out at night to hunt. Those daytime hiding spots often include the stone slave walls that crisscross the island and crevices in the bark of old tamarind trees.
The Spotted Woodslave is instantly recognizable. It’s huge, of course, with the sturdy frame of a retired athlete. It also has a generous speckling of black spots on its tan skin. Its legs are draped in loose skin, like long underwear that is a couple sizes too big. Splits in its toe pads make its feet look cartoonishly oversized. It has enormous eyes that stick out on either side of its head like tiny planets.
It is a beautiful lizard, and one that is only found on St. Martin. St. Martiners have known this lizard since people first came to the island, but it was only described as a new species in 2011. Previously, it was considered just a variant of a sister-species, the Turnip-tailed Gecko, which is found in much of the tropical Americas.
Why does St. Martin have its own species of gecko? It’s quite hard to say, because it happened long before anyone was around to watch. Perhaps our Spotted Woodslave lived on more islands at one time, before disappearing everywhere but St. Martin. Perhaps Turnip-tailed Geckos colonized the Caribbean twice: an early group that evolved into our Spotted Woodslave, and then a more recent group that remains the same as the geckos on the mainland.
Whatever its origins, the Spotted Woodslave surely deserves wider recognition as a unique part of St. Martin’s nature. It is also part of local culture. With microscopic hooks on its toes like invisible velcro, it can climb walls. This gave rise to the myth that if a woodslave was on your skin it could only be removed by burning it with a hot iron. That myth’s not true, of course, but it is rooted in observation of this animal’s amazing climbing abilities.
You can learn more about the Spotted Woodslave and other species that are found only on St. Martin at Amuseum Naturalis. Visit the museum for free on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm or get more info at amuseumnaturalis.com.