UCalgary’s Anthony Russell startled to receive email from French author thanking him for decades-old research
A carefully preserved corpse. A legend about a creature of ill omen. A voyage to the far side of the world.
“One day, I stumbled on this rather strange tale,” says Thanh-Van Tran-Nhut, an engineer-turned-writer who is known in France for her series of crime novels set in 17th-century Vietnam. “It starts with the discovery of a corpse in a dark basement, and nobody knows how it landed there, so an investigation must be carried out to identify the cadaver.
“It sounds like something out of a crime novel, but it partly stems from a real scientific paper by Dr. Anthony Russell, PhD, that I came across during my research, and the corpse is the stuffed body of a giant gecko.”
A professor emeritus of biology in the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary, Russell is an expert on geckos, a group of lizards found on every continent except Antarctica. Many species can walk like insects up vertical surfaces, even window panes, leading researchers to study them in the hope of creating better adhesives.
No record of origin
But that’s not what’s extraordinary about the stuffed gecko he and fellow biologist Dr. Aaron Bauer, PhD, examined in the mid-1980s. At 62 centimetres (more than two feet) from snout to tail, its size far surpassed that of the largest species then known.
“This thing was 54 per cent bigger than the New Caledonian giant gecko, which was already very big for a gecko,” says Russell. The average gecko’s length is five to six centimetres, he says.
The specimen was first noticed in 1979 in the basement of the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle in Marseille by curator Alain Delcourt (hence its eventual scientific name, Hoplodactylus delcourti). He could find no record of its origin, how long it had been in the museum, or what it was.
It was so big that Russell suspected it had been faked, a concern that was dispelled through X-rays of its skeleton. Comparison with living geckos led to the surprising conclusion that it likely came from New Zealand, a country about 19,000 kilometres from France.
It turned out the Indigenous Maori people of New Zealand knew the lizard as the kawekaweau (pronounced cahway-cahway-ow) and believed it represented the souls of dead forebears, with scientists generally regarding it as strictly mythical. “It’s said that anybody who crossed its path was due to meet his ancestors shortly, that is, to die,” says Tran-Nhut.
Believed to be extinct
As can be the case for snakes or spiders, Russell says some cultures find geckos to be creepy, an impression boosted by their lidless eyes, scuttling movements up walls, and the strange, barking vocalizations many species make when threatened. In reality, all geckos are harmless and non-poisonous, he says.
The last known sightings of what turned out to be the kawekaweau occurred in the 1870s. The species was never scientifically described during its heyday and is now believed to be extinct.
Russell and Bauer jointly published two papers on the Marseille specimen in the late 1980s — and that’s where the matter rested, until they each received an email in June from Tran-Nhut. She thanked them for helping inspire her new French-language book of historical fiction, Kawekaweau, a novel she worked on during her writer’s residency at Randell Cottage in Wellington, New Zealand.
“It was obviously very surprising,” says Russell. “I had no idea our research from over 30 years ago would capture the attention of somebody writing novels.”
Period of intense rivalry
In Kawekaweau, published by Au Vent des Iles in 2017, Tran-Nhut partly describes how a French voyage of discovery to New Zealand during 1826-27 brought the creature of Maori legend to the port city of Marseille. Although her account is fictional, it is closely based on the logbook of the captain of an actual French expedition to New Zealand.
“It was a period of intense rivalry between France and Great Britain because they needed resources and they needed land, so they were looking for places to establish trading posts and then colonies,” says Tran-Nhut, a native of Vietnam who grew up in the U.S. and France. “It was a thriving period for science and for politics in general, and for encounters with other civilizations, such as the Maori.”
Interwoven with the account of the voyage is the book’s modern-day story of Viktor, a professor of French literature who has moved to Vietnam with his wife, only to receive a parcel from his ex-girlfriend, Lucie, who has recently died. Besides sending objects from their time together, she gives him one last challenge — to solve the mystery behind the Marseille kawekaweau.
“Viktor takes up this quest and carries out extensive research, just as I did, and he, too, delves into the captain’s log, but when he reads through the lines, he realizes that something terrible happened on the voyage, though it was unreported, so the novel is basically a modern-day investigation that unearths an evil event from the past and solves a 19th-century cold case,” says Tran-Nhut.
Could it have survived?
Russell says the book shows how scientific research can be put to creative uses other than stereotypical science fiction. “I think there is a lot of opportunity to extrapolate — to weave in bits of history as this author has done.”
As for the real kawekaweau? Russell says there’s a chance some survivors of the world’s largest species of gecko could still be living undetected in the kauri forests of New Zealand, because they are almost certainly secretive, nocturnal animals that occupy the forest canopy high from the eyes of ground-dwelling people.
Their large size may be a clue to their ability to conduct such a lifestyle in the relatively cool (for geckos) climate of New Zealand, allowing them to better retain daytime heat as cold-blooded, ectothermic reptiles and thus enabling them to be active at night, he says. “It’s always possible they’ve survived,” says Russell. “We’re eternally optimistic about these sorts of things.”