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La Sierra field biologist takes home new species of gecko

Grismer's track record: discovery of 80 species in 15 years

Imagine this: High on adrenalin, you battle chokehold vines, scorching heat and leeches while crawling uphill through a remote Malaysian jungle with a reputation for ghosts and poisonous snakes. You're the first known person to ascend this cloud-laden summit.

Adventist field biologist Lee Grismer in the herpetology lab at church-run La Sierra University. Grismer and his team are credited with discovering 80 new species of reptiles and amphibians during the past 15 years. [photos courtesy Lee Grismer]
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You're not in search of a lost civilization -- this isn't the script for the next Indiana Jones movie. Instead, your eyes are peeled for an elusive new species of Southeast Asian forest gecko.

"No one really wants to go there," says Seventh-day Adventist field biologist Lee Grismer, who recently returned from the trek to his Temecula, California home, gecko in tow.

The 55-year-old herpetologist and his team are credited with discovering 80 new species of reptiles and amphibians during his 15-year career in the biology department of church-run La Sierra University.

One is a frog with almost transparent skin, turquoise bones and green blood, discovered during a previous expedition in Cambodia. That trip, Grismer says, ended in a veterinarian's office, where he swallowed potent canine worm pills to combat a nasty intestinal parasite he'd acquired.

The latest is a forest gecko. Grismer describes it as a "long, spindly looking lizard," with a triangular head and yellow eyes.

Identifying a new species doesn't end with discovery, Grismer says. While he says he immediately knew the gecko was a new member of a group of Southeast Asian lizards he's previously studied, he now has to convince the scientific community. This requires anatomical measurements, color-pattern analysis, scale-counting and sequencing DNA from liver tissue. Then, the gecko can join the 36 new species of lizard his lab has identified in Malaysia during the past six years.

During his trips to countries such as Malaysia, Grismer works closely with local officials and scientists, says James Wilson, chair of the biology department at La Sierra. "[Lee] is highly regarded by his colleagues and respected in the countries where he conducts his studies [and] collects samples," Wilson says. Grismer is the sort of guy who walks through the jungle and sees "what others don't," Wilson adds.

Grismer says his earliest memory is of chasing a lizard. "I just remember that animal looked so fascinating and mysterious and primeval to me. When I'm in these jungles and see some new lizard on a tree, I get that exact feeling. Looking at a piece of natural history that remained hidden for however many years, that's a rush," he says. "I'm blessed."

This species of Southeast Asian forest gecko is so newly discovered that it doesn't have a name yet. Grismer found it during a recent expedition to Malaysia.
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Recapturing that "rush" is only part of what drives Grismer, he says. He's also deeply concerned by what he describes as "biodiversity decrease." With compromised habitats driving many species to the brink of extinction, the discovery of new species becomes vital, he says.

Discovery often leads to government conservation of the new species' habitat, Grismer says. That protection extends to "the rainforests, the other species and the small communities that depend on the rainforest to survive and make a living," he says. "So the implications are tremendous."

In between the four or five expeditions he leads per year, Grismer teaches general biology courses and upper-division herpetology classes at La Sierra. "I can't wait to get back out into the field," he says.

"My [human anatomy] students always ask me these in-depth medical questions, and I go, 'Listen guys, you're talking to a grown man who chases lizards. I teach anatomy to pay the bills," Grismer says.

After a lecture and book signing tour in Malaysia and Singapore beginning in June, he'll be back where he's most comfortable in August: "buried in the jungle, two weeks away from anything that even remotely resembles human habitation," he says.

"I like being places where every decision you make really matters," Grismer says. "There's nothing quite like it."

3 Comments

This is really amazing and it shows how diverse God's creation is. I pray that this discovery and others will create not only a belief in God, but moreso lead those who may not acknowledge Him, initially to place faith in His Son Jesus and have the assurance of salvation.

Oh snap! Check it out! The one Adventist University who actually teaches things other than Creation has the professor who actually performs ground breaking work in his field. In other words, unlike some others, La Sierra is the HEAD, not the TAIL!

Check it out | April 29, 2011 12:04 PM | Reply

No way to tell from this story, "Looking at a piece of natural history that remained hidden for however many years....", if Grismer accepts creation fact or is an evolutionist. Philosophy of origins does matter. Can't recommend LSU to any student while its philosophical house remains in disorder.

Coastal Rich | April 29, 2011 3:45 PM | Reply

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