Geckos in Space! Lizards Are No Strangers to the Cosmos

Geckos Hand Roscosmos
The geckos on the Foton-M4 spacecraft are the fourth group of geckos to travel to space. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

A Russian space capsule loaded with science experiments, including several live geckos, was thought to have been lost last week, after ground controllers were unable to communicate with the satellite in orbit. Russian space officials say they have now re-established contact with the capsule, but the scare thrust these high-flying lizards and their mission into the spotlight. Yet geckos have long been research stars in space, and are no strangers to daring journeys into orbit.

The geckos' latest space quest began July 18, when the Russian space agency Roscosmos launched a capsule with five of the lizards and several other experiments into space for a two-month mission.

Researchers equipped the capsule with an infrared camera to record the geckos' behavior, and Roscosmos plans to study how a microgravity environment affects the animals' mating, fertilization and embryonic development. [Animals in Space: 10 Beastly Tales]

But on July 24, flight managers lost contact with the capsule, the agency said in a statement. Although the capsule could still send information, including the infrared videos of the geckos' activities, it could not receive commands from Roscosmos.

The story took off as the media reported about lost "space sex geckos" and late-night talk-show host John Oliver started a viral campaign to "Go get those geckos."

Roscosmos reportedly restored contact with the spacecraft on July 26.

The media's lampooning may be in good fun, but researchers say the public shouldn't dismiss the experiments, which could be vital to understanding how procreation works in space.

"Despite the media attention for all of the wrong reasons, the rationale of these experiments is quite solid," NASA research scientist Eduardo Almeida told Live Science. "One of the things we need to understand is how reproduction in vertebrates works. We have very little information about this."

The mission is the fourth to send geckos into space. Before NASA and Roscosmos can begin complicated experiments on other vertebrates in orbit, the scientists need to determine how these tiny lizards adapt to life in space.

"This is a very good species to study in space because the geckos, being reptiles, can digest a meal for a week and be fine without food or water," said Almeida, who worked with NASA and Roscosmos on the first three gecko missions.

The first mission, Foton-M2, launched in May 2005 and spent 16 days in orbit. Researchers lined the shoe-size gecko compartment with cardboard, but didn't include any food or water. As predicted, the animals survived, but they did lose weight, Almeida said.

A separate group of geckos kept without food and water on Earth similarly showed increased bone loss, suggesting that geckos need sustenance on future space missions, Almeida said. [Photos: Pioneering Animals in Space]

"In the first flight — and part of my helping them was developing the model for spaceflight — we learned that this type of experiment requires some food and water," he said.

The next mission, Foton-M3, launched in September 2007 for a 12-day orbital stay. NASA helped develop some of the capsule's hardware, which included infrared LED lighting for video cameras, batteries to power the system and a lick plate that produced droplets of water that the geckos could lick to stay hydrated.

Foton-M3's successful results encouraged the scientists for Roscosmos' Bion-M1, which launched in April 2013 for a monthlong mission. "That was one of the longest successful missions with animals," Almeida said.

The Bion-M1 also periodically fed the geckos. A video stream allowed researchers to study gecko behavior, such as whether microgravity affected the lizards' behavior and reproduction, Almeida said. The spacecraft also included mice and gerbils that died during the mission, likely due to problems with the food delivery system and other technical or medical problems, Almeida said.

The current mission, Foton-M4, has food and water onboard to sustain the geckos during their 60-day voyage. However, Roscosmos is using Mauritius ornate day geckos for their experiment, rather than the standard Pachydactylus geckos. Both lizards have similar gestational periods of 40 to 70 days, depending on incubation temperature, but the Pachydactylus' eggs take slightly longer to hatch. The Mauritius ornate day geckos' eggs are also glued together by a mucus-like substance, which may help anchor them to a surface in a microgravity environment, Almeida said.

Before launch, Russian researchers ensured that the four female geckos and one male gecko were at the right stages of development to mate, Almeida said. There's no guarantee, but if the lizards do mate, the researchers can examine the animals' development and observe whether the resulting embryo or offspring is any different from those born on Earth, and when in the stages of development these changes can be detected.

"That would be a huge step to see how development in space occurs," Almeida said. "We have seen some data for frogs, but this is different because it's not an aquatic egg."

In the long term, these gecko experiments may help researchers understand whether vertebrates can reproduce in space. Although NASA did not work with Roscosmos on the Foton-M4 project, the agency still has a vested interest in the results.

"Short term exploration doesn’t require knowing any of this," Almeida said. "For long term exploration, are species that are going to come along with humans into long-term space travel, are they going to be able to reproduce normally? The science needs to be collected."

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Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.