The southwest monsoon was delayed and there was a collective sense of foreboding among visitors at the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology (KCRE), located in the heart of the rainforest of Agumbe. Famous for the torrential downpour it receives each year, these jungles are superbly biodiverse, and in the monsoon one can experience the rainforest truly come alive. It was my first morning at the Centre. I was brimming with optimism. The lack of rain indicated I would probably be able to tick one species off from my wish-list sooner than expected.
Found in the Western and Eastern Ghats of India, the southern flying lizard (Draco dussumieri), belongs to a family of lizards known as Agamidae, commonly called dragons or dragon lizards. If it wasn’t for their size, draco lizards could easily pass off for the mythical dragons they are named after (draco is Latin for serpent or dragon). And as their name suggests, these lizards are capable of flying, or rather gliding, from one tree to another, using a wing-like membrane known as the ‘patagium’ attached to the sides of their bodies. They are also very well camouflaged; their brown skin allows them to merge with tree trunks, making them notoriously difficult to spot.
Clueless about how to spot one, I turned to herpetologist and founder of KCRE, Gowri Shankar. “Oh, dracos?” he said. “You will see them by the dozens on the areca nut trees over there,” he pointed. Before long I was staring at an areca nut plantation, waiting for the flying lizards to show up. Sensing my impatience, visiting herpetologist Sneha Dharwadkar, called out, “Look high up. You will see one gliding past soon. “How big are they?” I asked. “About the size of your foot,” she replied.
Moving from my vantage point, I entered the plantation, hoping the change in location would help me spot these elusive lizards, which were clearly living up to their reputation of mythical dragons. I squinted into the midday sun, but could only see butterflies flitting by the tall, slender trees. But I knew to expect the unexpected. Suddenly there was movement, quite unlike the jittery action of butterflies, this was a smooth, precise gliding motion by which the agamid landed on a tree and vanished immediately.
“Come here, I see one,” Sneha called out, from the spot I had earlier stood. She was probably looking at the same individual that I had just seen gliding by, but there was no way to be sure. She pointed me towards an individual flashing its bright yellow dewlap (a narrow flap of skin under the chin) and took a guess that it was probably a male. Males have longer dewlaps, which they use to court females and ward off other males, she told me.
Wildlife biologist Chetana Purushotham, who assessed the population of dracos in Agumbe with her team in 2010, later told me, over a phone conversation, that the males are territorial, especially during breeding season, when they are constantly displaying their dewlap to chase away other males. “You must have seen other individuals around as well, right?’ she enquired.
She was right. After spotting the first lizard, I saw more individuals whizzing by. “Initially, spotting dracos is a bit tough, but once you do, it is not very difficult anymore. You get the image in your head. Suddenly, you know what you are looking for, and begin to see them everywhere,” she said.
As we observed one scaling a tree, Sneha remarked, “We could see them better if we had a pair of binoculars”. I rushed to my tent to get a pair. Settling down on a nearby log, I followed an individual with my binoculars as it scaled a tree, stopping briefly to consume an ant. Ants form a major part of the draco diet. Dracos need to feed often to maintain their high-energy, arboreal lifestyles. They will often station themselves beside an ant trail on a tree trunk to pick them off as they pass by. The lizard I was watching soon took off to land on another tree.
“If you noticed, dracos never glide upwards. They always glide downwards and can manoeuvre themselves quite well mid-flight. Sometimes, they will even turn around completely to land back on the same tree that they took off from. When they take off, they pick up their patagium with their forelimbs, lifting it like a skirt, before they begin to glide. This feature is unique to the draco dussumieri,” said Chetana.
Sneha, who has seen these lizards across different habitats in the Western Ghats of Kerala, Karnataka, and Goa, said she never tires of observing them. “They are such remarkable reptiles. The grace with which they glide makes every sighting unique.”
Though few studies have been undertaken to understand the threats facing these tree-dwelling reptiles, Chetana believes that destruction of their forest habitat is a primary problem. “Not having the threats established doesn’t mean that these lizards are not getting affected. As connectivity between forests is lost, these lizards will be affected in the same manner that tigers stuck in genetically-isolated populations would,” she emphasised.
Is that why they are now increasingly seen in plantations, I wondered. “We can’t say conclusively if they prefer plantations over forest habitats. The plantations where dracos are usually found are on the fringes of forests.” Chetana elaborated. It’s entirely possible that they may be moving back and forth between the two types of habitats. “In plantations, which do not offer as much foliage cover as forests, they are more vulnerable to predatory birds. There have, in fact, been studies done in the early 2000s, which suggested that draco encounter rates in forests is higher than in plantations,” she said.
Over the next few days in Agumbe, I saw more flying dragons. The pattern was similar. They would glide out of nowhere, land on a tree, pick an ant off the trunk, flash their dewlap, scale the tree, and then take off again. Yet, there was something unique about how every individual made its appearance. I understood what Sneha meant when she said sighting these lizards is something you can never tire of. I felt the same way. I left Agumbe, hopeful of sighting more in the pristine jungles of the Western Ghats, now that I had trained myself to keep an eye out for these incredible flying dragons.