As I peered through the canopy trying to identify some movement, I saw a falling dry leaf that was suddenly sucked by the bark of another tree. I realised it was indeed what I was looking for – a flying dragon! More commonly known as flying lizards, they belong to the genus Draco, which is Latin for dragon. Discounting their much smaller size and inability to breathe out fire, these lizards truly resemble dragons in their appearance. I was going to spend the next five months in the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve studying the behaviour of these lizards as a part of my master’s dissertation.
Flying lizards are masters of camouflage, the colour and pattern on their bodies flawlessly merging with the tree. A piece of peeled bark, a small broken branch, or a leaf stuck on the tree could easily be mistaken for a Draco. As they glide from one tree to another, the lizards promptly change their colour to blend with the bark and to even resemble the lichen on them, making it a challenge to spot them. Using the combination of impeccable camouflage and freeze response (staying still as a stone), I observed them evade predation by birds known to feed on agamids, even at very close proximities.
Unlike what its name suggests, the Draco glides between trees with the help of an extended skin membrane called the patagium, similar to flying squirrels or flying snakes. They are accomplished gliders capable of demonstrating thrilling manoeuvres in mid-air. During the study, I observed several instances where the lizard glided across long distances and soared past trees, skillfully avoiding any crash landings. I once observed an individual glide across 27 metres, the maximum gliding distance recorded during the study.
Flying lizards are dimorphic, which means that the males and females are distinct in appearance, differing in size as well as colouration. In contrast to most other agamids, male flying lizards are smaller and slender as compared to the larger and bulkier females. Males also exhibit more pronounced ornamentation, which is the bright yellow and black patterned patagial membrane as against the drab orange and dark colour in females. Additionally, they also have another unique feature known as the gular appendage or a dewlap, which is a skin fold at the throat. Although present in both sexes, the males have a distinctively elongated, bright yellow coloured dewlap in contrast to the much smaller, rounded, greenish gular appendage of the females. The males indulge in a repertoire of dewlap flashing – extending and retracting the appendage – in bouts of 3 to 4, and are used for social signaling. Females flash their dewlap less frequently and without any seemingly visible pattern.
After a fairly relaxed winter where the lizards spent almost 80-90% of their time being motionless, summer brought in a welcome but hyperactive transformation. Being the breeding season, the lizards sprung into action and I found myself sprinting across vegetation trying to keep pace. From a single mid-day peak in activity during winter, they shifted to two peaks in activity: early morning and evening. Males showed higher rates of activity as compared to females, and began exhibiting territoriality, ferociously defending it from other males.
Typical displays involves a male approaching a female by moving up a tree trunk while repeatedly flashing its dewlap and occasionally accompanied by head bobbing and expansion of the patagial membrane. Once it is close to the female, the male starts circling her, even as the gular continues to flash. Most early summer courtship displays were met with a denial from the female, conveyed by expansion of the patagial membrane and arching the body, and eventually fleeing from the tree. However, the first courtship display that led to successful copulation was observed towards the end of April, where the female remained submissive, eventually allowing copulation.
The difficulty in observing these highly cryptic and entirely arboreal lizards has limited our understanding of the species. This study was aimed at generating some baseline information on its behaviour and ecology. However, much of its natural history still remains unexplored. Further investigations on behaviours such as the mating system, nature of dewlap display, and interactions with conspecific individuals across seasons can provide interesting insights into the lives of these unique lizards.