When we first moved to the Algarve in 1999, we were amazed at the variety of animal life that we kept discovering in the garden. It seemed like every week there was a new animal or creature to enchant us.
As well as the amazing array of birds that grace the rice fields near our home, we have a lake with wild terrapins that like basking in the sun and plop one by one into the water when we get near. Fish appear when the rains come…where do they come from when the lake looks like the Sahara Desert most summers? The snakes and chameleons are the most exotic and I feel privileged that our garden has been an amazing natural science environment for my children as they grew up.
However, there is one creature that we always knew existed here and that is the gecko, called ‘osga’ in Portuguese. I have read ‘My Family and Other Animals’ several times and it was through Gerald Durrell that I first learnt about geckos. In fact, our life in the last 20 years here has had enough animal stories for me to write my own book!
I both love and dislike osgas. I like watching them climb the outside walls, waiting patiently by the lights to catch the moths that flutter round. They stick to the windowpanes at night with their underbellies and sticky feet easy to see, reflected by the light from inside the house. I am very grateful to them for catching all the mosquitos and, with the rice fields nearby, we do get a lot of mosquitos. I do not like them in my bedroom as I do not want them landing on me when I am sleeping, and I do not like the way they drop their tails, which are left squirming horribly on the floor if they are threatened and need to get away.
When we first moved into our half-built farm with bare brick walls, we were horrified one day to find what we believed to be rat droppings in the kitchen. It was only when we noticed the droppings were also stuck to the walls that we began to have doubts that they could be rats defecating vertically! It turns out that the droppings were from osgas as each had a little white ‘stone’ attached to it. Reptiles expel their urine and stools through the same opening, so the white bit is the lizard’s urine, actually, uric acid crystals. We were slightly relieved but still disgusted!
Worldwide, there are over 1,500 gecko species. In Portugal, there are two species, the larger and lighter Tarentola mauritanica, which is found in Southern Europe and Northern Africa, and the Hemidactylus turcicus, which is mostly found in the Algarve and Alentejo regions. Growing to around 15cm, osgas typically live four years in the wild and nine in captivity. They like rocky environments, but most people see them on the walls of their houses. Feeding on insects and spiders, osgas replace their 100 teeth every three to four months.
What is fascinating about osgas is the way they can stick to ceilings and walls. Each of their toes has over 14,000 hair-like setae, giving them an incredible adhesive power, but not all gecko species climb walls.
Osgas hibernate between November and February, breeding in the spring with the females laying their eggs together in the same place. Each lays on average two eggs and incubation can take between 40-120 days. The baby osgas we get in the house are only four or five centimetres long and so cute!
Did you know that osgas are vocal? I didn’t! They are unique in the way they chirp at each other for territorial or courtship displays. They sound like a small chick chirping and I am now on a mission to sit outside at night to hear them.
Certain types of geckos are bred as pets. My daughter has over the years had several pet lizards, so she has no problem in catching osgas to put them outside. The most common geckos to keep are the Leopard geckos which have a beautiful smile!
Lizards are relatively low maintenance pets, but they do need specialist UV lights, heat pads and you cannot be squeamish when feeding them live cockroaches, crickets or meal worms, which are not cheap to buy! When Jess is away and I have to look after her lizards, I will feed them anything but the cockroaches!
Can you form a relationship with a pet lizard? Iguanas have been seen to recognise their human handlers and Jess’ lizards do get excited when she is near, but I suspect it is more a case of instinct as they are about to be fed.
It has always amused me that many of my Portuguese friends believe osgas to be poisonous and dangerous, but this belief comes from old folk tales. Sadly, these tales about such an innocent and harmless lizard have led to their ‘persecution’ in Portugal and they are now a protected species under the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.
Some of the folklore surrounding osgas is that they can poison you if they fall into your food, or that they cause skin rashes or boils, fever and severe pain if you touch them. However, they are an important part of the ecosystem and fascinating to watch, and I am pleased they are protected, although this is very difficult to enforce. Can you imagine trying to report someone for killing an osga?
We were excited recently to find, for the first time, two worm lizards (Blanus cinereus) under an old bath being used for the ducks. These creatures typically live in habitats of between 400-1400 metres living on insects and their larvae. They look like worms, but they have undeveloped eyes, scales and a forked tongue. The Portuguese call these ‘blind snakes’ and whilst they are easily mistaken for snakes or worms, they are, in fact, lizards.
After 20 years here on the farm, we never expected to find anything new!
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.