Flying dragon lizard a true gliding reptile

By Bec Crew | May 29, 2014

Like something out of a fiction novel, the flying dragon lizard is one of the only true gliding reptiles

Contributor

Bec Crew

Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.

AT HOME IN THE dense tropical rainforests of South-east Asia and southern India, the fantastic flying dragon lizard, Draco volans, cuts a fine figure as it glides through the trees.

Those colourful ‘wings’ are skin extensions called patagia, stretched over highly specialised, elongated ribs. Patagia are found in all 45 recognised species of the Draco genus, and not only do they allow these lizards to move effortlessly up, down and around the trees, they’re also a really handy identifier – each species displays a unique colour pattern across their patagia.

For Draco volans, it’s those multiple rows of little brown rectangles that distinguish them from any other lizard.

While patagia are also found in a handful of gecko species, they’re quite small and lack the support of an underlying skeleton, so for this reason, the members of the Draco genus are the only reptiles on Earth considered to be ‘true’ gliders.

Flying lizard glides for mates and territory

The ability to glide out of reach of your predators is probably the most effective defence mechanism you could hope for, but this isn’t the only reason Draco volans takes to the sky.

By far, gliding is their preferred method of getting around, and the males use it to fiercely patrol their territories of one of more trees, while the females travel freely between them in search of a mate.

Both can manage about an 8m-long trajectory before settling on a branch or a tree trunk to prepare for another launch.

Draco volans uses ‘wings’ for courtship

Courtship is an important part of the Draco volans existence, and both the patagia and the species’ colourful dewlap – a flap of skin connected to the throat – play a key role.

At around 212mm in length, the females are noticeably bigger than the 195-mm-long males, so the males have make an effort to make themselves look big in order to impress them.

They do this by unfolding and stretching their wings and dewlap, and bobbing up and down as they circle around the females. In quite the opposite fashion, the females will only display their patagia to a male if they want him to stop performing and leave.

If a Draco volans union is successful, the female will make her way down to the forest floor, ram her snout into the dirt, and lay her eggs in a little nest. This is the only time she will ever leave the safety of the trees.