All they needed to know about geckos . . . they learned in kindergarten

Gecko researcher Tony Gamble visited kindergartners at St. Anthony Park Elementary School in April. (Park Bugle photo by Alex Lodner)

When Tony Gamble, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota specializing in geckos, found out that Justin Terrones’ kindergarten class at St. Anthony Park Elementary School had been researching and writing about geckos for their nonfiction writing unit, he jumped at the chance to visit the classroom and introduce the students to some real live lizards.

The National Science Foundation, which funds Gamble’s projects, encourages scientists to not only conduct important research but also to share it with the community at large.

“This is one of my favorite ways to fulfill that requirement,” said Gamble after his visit. “The kids are so excited, and this is the age I got really excited about lizards too.”

Excited is an understatement. When Gamble fished the first gecko out of his cooler, the children could barely stay seated on their “pockets.” Tiny hands went up in the air before Gamble even had a chance to begin his presentation, and the questions and comments continued throughout the session.

“Can we touch them?”

“Do they stick to windows?”

“Have you ever been bitten by a gecko?”

With the patience of a schoolteacher, Gamble answered the questions while enthusiastically explaining what each of the four geckos he brought was known for.

“The bad boy of geckos,” for example, also known as the Leopard Gecko, breaks all gecko rules by daring to have eyelids and no sticky feet. Placing another small gecko on the white board to see if it would stick (it did) brought a roar of laughter from the pint-sized audience.

Gamble asked many questions of his own, inviting a slew of gecko-encounter stories from the classroom, including tales of seeing “thousands of geckos in Texas.”

After the presentation, the children were allowed to come up and view the geckos in their not-so-natural habitat made up of what appeared to be clear plastic containers that once housed cookies.

When not blowing the minds of 5-year-olds with his collection of live lizards, Gamble examines the evolutionary processes of sex-determining mechanisms and sex chromosomes in geckos.

“A minimum of 30 new species of geckos are discovered in the world every year,” he explained. “There are over 1,500 kinds of known geckos who live all over the world.”

This huge diversity of geckos has evolved again and again over millions of years, making them a perfect model for studying sex-determination mechanisms, he said. Researching replicated patterns can lead to better understanding of general principals of evolution, which can be very rewarding, according to Gamble.

While this information may not have stuck with the kindergartners, one scientifically proven fact did: Geckos are cool.

And that, to Tony Gamble, is the best kind of reward.

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