Australian Water Dragon (Intellagama Lesueurii)2
Australian Water Dragon (Intellagama Lesueurii) photo by Ry Beaver from iNaturalist.org

It sounds like another fairy story, to have dragons at the bottom of the garden.

We have two types, the Bearded Dragons and the Water Dragons.

As a child I was always convinced that the water dragons were tiger snakes.  Usually all we saw of them in the river was the long striped tail disappearing into the water.   I developed a special “snake” scaring swimming stroke for the Murrumbidgee that was a modification of normal breast-stroke.  It involved using your hands to clear any scum or sticks from the water in front, and a loud splashing kick at the back that was guaranteed to startle any wildlife.

I was unaware that snakes don’t have ears, but lizards do.  In any case, all I saw were tails, until one day I startled one into the clear water of the creek as I was walking.   It lay on the bottom, totally still.  I watched it for forty-five minutes, uncertain if it was dead, and waited to see if it would come up again.  I found out later I should have waited twice as long, as they can hold their breath for 90 minutes.  It seemed quite calm in its prehistoric, scaly way.

lizard crossing pipeThe Mullion Creek crossing on Esdale is called Lizard Crossing after our neighbours saw a water dragon there the first time they came past.  We saw it the other day sunning itself on the bridge, but it dodged into the pipe underneath when I tried to take its photo.  Even if you can’t see any live dragons, Renee Catullo from Craig’s lab set up a concrete lizard watching the crossing.  It was leftover from a prank where she placed dozens of small concrete statues outside Jason Bragg’s door, all with their eyes turned to the same spot.  Excellent prank.   At the moment it’s invisible in the long grass, however.

Dragons are fast runners, hoisting themselves up on their surprisingly long legs and having it away on their toes.  The ones in Central Australia, if startled, will run away upright, on their back legs.  Their front legs wave about as if they’re anxiously flapping their hands.  Ours run on all four legs, however.

The male water dragons can be quite spectacular in their mating colours, stripes, crests, and long claws.  Meanwhile the bearded dragons are generally much more subdued.

The first summer we had at Esdale we saw a bearded  dragon sitting on a fence post at the edge of the garden.  Not surprising, since their other common name is “Fencepost Lizard”.  It was there basking in the sunshine most days.  At the time we were having a grasshopper plague and we tried to offer it some grasshoppers to eat.  Being cold-blooded it had already had far more than it wanted and ignored them sitting all along its back, and even on its nose.   It was so exhausted that it never even raised its beard at us.

Craig and Martha and dragonThis week we’ve had the pleasure of an extra herpetologist in the house, just as all the scaly creatures are waking up from hibernation for the spring. Craig’s new postdoc  Martha Munoz  keeps pointing out animals I’ve failed to notice – water dragons, skinks, snakes, a brown falcon swooping away with a lizard dangling from its beak.  She noticed the bearded dragon on the same garden gate post and went running down to photograph it.

bearded dragon 2

It can’t be the same one as thirty years ago, as they usually only live to fifteen at the most.  Compared to the short lives of hot-blooded animals the same size, that’s much longer of course.  It’s probably a relative of that other dragon, however.  The beard seems most impressively black.  Perhaps that’s part of its mating colours and we disturbed it while it was waiting to flaunt itself in front of a lady friend.

The beard is pretty spectacular, but this is not the frill-necked lizard of northern Australia, where the frill goes all the way around.  This is just a “beard”.  Impressive enough.

Bearded dragons and Blue Tongues (a type of large skink) were the official contestants at the Eulo lizard races when Craig took his lab there.  He’d been collecting geckoes and was miffed that he was not allowed to enter one.  “Too small” said the race officials “The other runners might eat him.”  We assumed that the speedy bearded dragons would be much faster than the slow moving blue tongues when they raced, but in fact the dragon race was interminable.  The “gates” were a large perspex pie dish on a rope, which when lifted left the dragons all facing one another in a circle.  Instead of running, they started posturing and doing push-ups to intimidate the other lizards until finally one gave in and skittered away.

Bearded Dragon (Pogona  Barbata)
Bearded Dragon (Pogona Barbata)

I looked up some information about bearded dragons, but found mostly rather depressing information about breeding them for different patterns of scales and colours.   I think it’s a wonderful thing for kids to be surrounded by animals.  It’s part of learning to relate to the world around us.  But there’s a line where keeping pets can become pretty undignified for the animals concerned, and not just when they have to wear a bonnet and be pushed around in a pram.  Anyway, I’m happy to know that those pets have wild cousins around here.

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