Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tokay Geckos and the Legend of the Liver Snake

There is a kind of lizard that lives here in Southeast Asia known as the Tokay Gecko (in both Khmer and English). It's an attractive animal with great marble eyes and a hide colored dirty blue with bright orange spots. Mostly nocturnal, they are up to a foot long, they stick to the walls and ceiling and eat bugs and very small animals including House Geckos (ching-chok) and giant centipedes. Tokays are solitary creatures, shy but not averse to living in and around houses in the city. They are far less common than the ubiquitous House Gecko. Perhaps one in ten or twenty houses has a Tokay living in, on or around it (if that many.) We have one that stays at our house on occasion, sometimes months at a time.

The call of the Tokay Gecko is loud and distinctive and the source of their name. A healthy, happy male gecko will bark out mating calls several times a night. They ‘bark’ almost as loud as a dog but in a parrot-like voice - the call coming in short rounds of two or sometimes three parts - first a growling frog-like wind up, followed by a well pronounced ‘toh-kay, toh-kay, toh-kay…’ repeated anywhere from a couple times up to 10 or more, and sometimes capped by a final little 'er-er-er-er-er' trailing out like a noisy gear grinding to a stop. Some people hear the call as 'geh-ko' instead of 'toh-kay.' See what you think... *Mating call of a male Tokay Gecko*

When my daughter was a young toddler a talkative Tokay Gecko lived just outside the door down the hall. She was fascinated by the sound of the gecko's call and would stop whatever she was doing to listen whenever it started up. Just learning to speak at the time, she learned to speak Tokay, repeating the call exactly as the gecko barked, with the same rising tone at the beginning, pause in the middle, and trailing end. She had animal book with a picture of a Tokay and would point at the photo and say "toh-kaaay" with a perfect Tokay Gecko accent.

I think of Tokays this evening because we have one living in the house again, somewhere in the eves upstairs. He's quite a loud and generous barker, letting fly long and often. My maid, a 50 year old Khmer woman, was just going on rather excitedly about our new guest, thrilled with his presence as she says this is very good luck for the house, especially this particular gecko who barks a lot.

On traditional wisdom she tells me that the amount of luck derived from a Tokay is tied to the number of times the gecko barks in a single round. An odd number of barks is much better than an even number. A round of 5 barks is average. Less than 5 is not good. More than 5 barks is good luck, even more so if it is an odd number. The more barks the better.

Then she paused and said warningly,

"Not everybody believes the next part, but I know it is true. I have seen it with my eyes - the Liver Snake."

The Tokay Gecko's ability to bark is determined in part by the size of his liver, she told me. Barking less than 5 times is a sign that the gecko has a swollen liver, putting pressure on his innards and impeding his barking ability. This condition can be relieved with the symbiotic cooperation of the "Liver Snake," an animal rarely seen by people and one in which "not everyone believes."

She explained, "when a Tokay with a swollen liver sees a Liver Snake it will approach carefully, stay still and open its mouth wide and invitingly. The Liver Snake will then enter the gecko's mouth, stretch into his abdomen and eat part of his liver," thereby presumably relieving pressure on his barker. The snake then departs, better for the meal of liver, leaving the Tokay also in an improved condition, now able to bark longer and stronger.

Supporting the validity of these claims she first offered two forms of evidence: authority and personal experience. First, she said in a serious tone that she learned about the Tokay from her parents who were very knowledgeable of such things. But more importantly, that she had actually once witnessed a Liver Snake engaged in the act with a Tokay. She described how back when she was a teenager she saw them doing it in a tree near a pagoda in Battambang.

I must have looked skeptical because she quickly added, "But if you don't believe, there is a way to prove it." Appealing to my bias for the scientific method, she offered up an experimental means of verifying the story.

She laid out the protocol. First catch a Tokay Gecko alive and tie him to a board. Then cut a long piece of a papaya leaf stem. Apparently a papaya stem is about the same color and size of a Liver Snake, green and as thick as finger. Then you poke the stem at the face of the restrained Tokay Gecko which, when confronted with this faux Liver Snake, will open his mouth widely just as he would for a real Liver Snake thereby demonstrating the Tokay's behavior around Liver Snakes and by extension, the existence of Liver Snakes. QED

* The photo of the gecko is not mine. I shamelessly lifted it from from this website. He looks as though he may have seen a Liver Snake.


  1. Very nice.

    I did a bit of googling on the subject. Here is some more info.

  2. I've got one that hangs around my front door, I sometimes feed it scraps of meat and bugs. It isn't at all shy and will confront you if you approach it. A couple of weeks ago it bit me and drew blood, I've been a bit more careful playing around with it. Interesting stuff about the Liver snake, I've heard myths about them jumping on people and crawling into their mouths but not that one.

  3. Great story.

    We had quite a few living in our place about 7km south of the Ind. monument. One night when the first monsoon rains arrived the newly hatched ants with wings flew into the house, 1000's upon 1000's of them flying to the lights. What ensued was a magnificent Tokay feeding fest.

    The largest one we had was about 55cm in length.

    We also had snakes living under our balcony roof, even with quite a good reference book I was unable to positively identify them, dragons, skinks, boxed lizards, and occasionally beautifully coloured birds similiar to a kingfisher, only smaller, would visit. The pool acted as a breeding ground for the millions of local frogs and the bats would hang from the rafters only evidenced by the droppings on the floor in the morning. The friendly marsupials loved to live in the sugar palms and would scurry through the tree tops to the mango trees.

    I dont miss the saucer size huntsmen style spiders. One once won a stare off with a tokay in the lounge room.

  4. Thanks for identifying that little guy. I was in Siem Reap in mid-November and there was one who hung around my balcony the entire time I was there. I have pictures, he is huge, almost a foot. I could not figure out what he was but given what he was eating and that he was nocturnal I knew he had to be a from of Gecko, so thanks for the confrimation.

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