Draco lizards are like magicians of the forest understorey. Camouflaged against the coarse, woody trunks of tall trees, they are seen only when they want to be. Without ever having to touch the ground, they can glide between trees using beautiful carpet-like wings that reveal themselves in their full glory only when the wizards soar through the air.
Draco lizards were named centuries ago, for their dragon-like appearance; what with the crown of horns on their heads, flared nostrils, long tail, and overall armoured appearance. While this description may create an image of a larger-than-life dragon in your mind, for a more realistic sense of their size, scale down your visual to a creature that is no longer than your foot, and weighing no more than a few grams.
Draco dussumieri, also known as the southern flying lizard is one of over 40 species of gliding lizards known to science, and one of only two species found in India (Draco norvillii is found in the Northeastern states). Draco dussumieri is seen throughout the Western Ghats, ranging from Maharashtra to Kerala with additional pockets in the Telangana region of the Eastern Ghats. Although draco lizards are forest residents, they are commonly seen in betel nut, silver oak and coconut plantations that fringe evergreen and deciduous forests.
Agumbe, tucked away in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, is one such place that has a vast matrix of semi-evergreen forests and plantations. Sightings of draco lizards are abundant here and have more recently allowed pioneering ecological studies on this truly bizarre animal. And yet, how much do we actually know about the lives of these winged reptiles?
Walking through a plantation with eyes and necks craned towards the treetops, our eyes are trained to look for any sign of movement, with our minds feeding us search images of birds, flying insects or perhaps arboreal primates. We are not usually expecting to see a gliding lizard, are we? Precisely for this reason, it is quite likely that we all have at one point or another, been in close proximity to a draco and completely oblivious to its presence, passing it off as a bulge on a tree trunk or a falling dead leaf.
A closer look at a draco perched on a tree reveals a small, slender, and highly active lizard. Draco lizards are strictly active in the daytime. They are highly territorial and a female will intentionally step down to the ground only when it is time for her to lay and bury her eggs; males never do. Built for climbing, they use tiny claws to hold onto trees. Their grip is strong, yet light enough for them to dart up and down with ease. They run up and down the length of the trees a lot, for they have intruders to fight off, interested mates to court with, predators to flee from, and ant trails to feast on!
Signalling and visual displays are a key component in the social life of a draco, whether in combat between males or a courtship between male and female. They use a very unique body part known as the ‘dewlap’, a bright yellow-green extension from under the chin that moves in an up-and-down fashion sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly, each being a code of communication between individuals. A draco seen at about 20 feet high up a tree might be trying to communicate to another lizard with its rapid dewlap movement but within seconds it could vanish from sight.
Searching might reveal it to be perched about five feet lower down a different tree, a good 30 meters away from the first. It accomplishes this magical feat by throwing itself into the air, opening out wing-like extensions called ‘patagia’, otherwise kept folded on either side of its body. The ‘patagium’ acts like a parachute that slows down its fall, increasing its drag and allowing it to soar long distances. The destination for landing is not arbitrary, it is usually chosen carefully. Draco lizards, use their forelimbs to lift their patagium when suspended mid-air and use it to manoeuvre and give direction to their glide.
Although gliding and dewlap communication are important in their daily lives, males and females are built differently. Males are smaller with longer dewlaps and bright yellow patagia, while females are larger with smaller dewlaps and a more reddish patagium. Every draco, irrespective of sex, has a uniquely patterned patagium that can be used to differentiate between individuals; a trait unique to the draco in the lizard world.
Plantations adjoining forests, where the canopy is quite sparse and plenty of light streams in make ideal places to observe draco lizards. However it is still not clear how plantation habitats such as those found in Agumbe influence draco populations in the light of how wild landscapes are rapidly changing. When we think of forest fragmentation and habitat loss, we think of the loss of connectivity, fewer corridors, we think of large mammals and birds but what about winged reptiles for whom these threats are just as serious?
Even today, we do not exactly know how draco populations are doing in the wild and its current status in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is ‘Least Concern’. Whether this is because their populations are considered healthy or due to their cryptic nature and the lack of study, it is hard to say. Draco lizards are fascinating animals and we continue to discover new aspects of their ecology, but the threat of habitat loss cannot be ignored. The last thing we want is for these living dragons to glide into obscurity.