Draco Lizards and Flying Dragons - Strange Rainforest Reptiles
Draco lizards are strange and interesting reptiles that have folds of skin on each side of their bodies. When the skin folds are extended they look like wings. These "wings" enable a lizard to glide for long distances in its forest habitat.
Draco lizards are often known as gliding lizards or, in the case of some species, as flying dragons. The scales covering a Draco lizard’s body and the fact that it seems to have wings remind some people of a dragon. In fact, draco is the Latin word for dragon.
There are over forty species of Draco lizards, all of them native to Southeast Asia. They belong to the genus Draco, which is classified in the family Agamidae. Members of this family are often referred to as agamids or as agamid lizards.
A Draco Lizard Glides to Escape from a Snake
The Flying Dragon
The scientific name of the flying dragon is Draco volans. Unlike their mythical counterparts, flying dragons are tiny reptiles. Their bodies are łong and slender. They are about twenty centimeters in length (around eight inches). They have a very long tail compared to the length of the rest of their body.
Like many Draco lizards, flying dragons have a mottled appearance and are generally a mixture of brown, grey, black and green in colour. Their colours help to camouflage them against the trunks of the rainforest trees.
The wings are coloured and patterned differently from the body. The scientific name of the wings is "pantagia" (or patagium when one wing is being discussed). The upper surface of the pantagia of male flying dragons is orange-red in colour and has black blotches. The upper surface of the female's pantagia is yellow with black blotches, although there may be some orange present as well.
Draco lizards have a loose flap of skin called a dewlap or gular flap hanging below their neck. Like the wings, the dewlap can be extended and is a different color from the body. The male flying dragon has a yellow dewlap while the female has a smaller, blue-grey one.
Some people think that flying dragons and other Draco lizards are poisonous, but this isn't the case. The animals are actually harmless to humans (as far as scientists know).
A Flying Snake Hunts a Draco Lizard
Flying Dragon Wings and Gliding Ability
A flying dragon's wings extend from just behind the front legs to just in front of the back legs. The last five to seven of the lizard’s ribs are elongated and extend into the wings. Muscles attached to the ribs cause the ribs to move and the wings to unfurl like an opening fan when the animal wants to glide.
Some reports state that flying dragons can glide as far as sixty meters (just under two hundred feet), or even further, and that they lose one foot in height for every five feet traveled through the air. Most flights seem to be around thirty feet, however. The lizards have better control of their motion than other reptiles that take to the air, such as flying geckos and flying snakes (which are also gliders, despite their names). Flying dragons can move their patagia as they glide. They can also move their tail, which acts like a rudder for steering. The lizards have a flattened appearance while they are gliding.
The Southern Flying Lizard or Draco dussumieri
The Life of a Flying Dragon
Flying dragons are active during the day. They glide from one tree to another, or sometimes from one branch to another in the same tree, in order to find food or a mate or to escape from predators.
Males also glide to chase away other males. A male patrols a territory of a few trees, gliding around the trees to protect them from invading lizards. When the males land they often flash their dewlaps to advertise their territory, which unfortunately also makes their presence more visible to predators. They do have one advantage over many of their predators, though - the ability to take off into the air and control their direction with precision.
Small lizards tend to live lower in the tree canopy than large lizards, since when the heavier lizards take off from a tree they need to develop speed before they extend their wings to glide.
When they’re not gliding, the animals often travel rapidly up and down tree trunks and along branches. They may also stay motionless for a while, becoming very hard to see as they blend in with their background.
Most of a flying dragon's diet consists of ants, but they also catch termites and other insects. They often feed as they ascend a tree trunk. The only time a lizard comes to the ground seems to be when a female is ready to lay eggs.
It's thought that the lizard's chief predators are arboreal (tree-living) snakes, large birds and monitor lizards. Despite the presence of their predators, though, most flying dragons are very successful in their habitat.
There is still much to be learned about the lives of flying dragons in the wild, including information about their reproduction.
It is known that the flying dragon has an interesting mating display. During courtship, the male displays his dewlap and his wings to attract females and also bobs his body up and down.
After mating, the female lizard digs a hole in the ground with her snout. She deposits up to five eggs in the hole, which she covers with soil. She guards the eggs for about a day and then leaves them on their own. The estimates for the length of time between egg laying and egg hatching vary widely. The time likely depends on environmental factors.
The Mindanao Flying Dragon
The Mindanao flying dragon lives in the Philippines and has the scientific name of Draco mindanensis. It's been found on the island of Mindanao and on neighbouring islands, but none of the populations seem to be dense.
The Mindanao flying dragon's body is pale grey-brown in colour. The upper surface of the body has both large and small white spots. The upper surface of the male's plantagia is red white the female's is dark grey. The dewlap of the male is an attractive orange colour. The female's is duller and has a yellow tip.
Like other gliding lizards, the Mindanao flying dragon lives in the forest, eats insects and is active during the day. The lizard is larger than many of its relatives, however, and can glide further and faster.
Unfortunately, this species of flying dragon is threatened by deforestation. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classifies the population as "Vulnerable". Efforts are being made to protect the lizard's rainforest habitat, which will hopefully allow the lizard population to grow or to at least stabilize. It would be a great shame to lose this animal from the Earth.
Draco lizards and flying dragons are fascinating little creatures. They are well adapted to their forest habitat and are fun to observe. The flight of a Draco lizard is a beautiful sight. Hopefully we will be able to see this flight for a long time to come.