Society for Conservation of Nature



A UNIQUE DRAGON (Published in Sunday 01 July 2018)

‘Southern Flying Lizard’ is scientifically known as ‘Draco dussumieri’. The specific name ‘dussumieri’ has been given in order to honour the French voyager ‘Jean-Jacques Dussumier’ who was collecting zoological specimens in India. The lizards which are found in the Western Ghats and the hill forests of Southern India are capable of gliding from tree to tree. ‘Draco’ means ‘Dragon’ in Greek. This species had been identified as early as in 1837 and found mention in the catalogue of the reptiles of the world. This is the only species found in Southern India out of 42 species in the genus Draco. They are arboreal and mostly found on trees in the forests and in nearby palm plantations. They glide from tree to tree in search of insects with the help of the wing-like membrane known as patagium attached to the sides of the body supported by elongated ribs. The gliding membrane in case of the flying lizard is something unique. It is an actively controlled structure supported by elongated ribs. Gliding is not only an escape mechanism but also the primary means of moving within its territory. Their home range consists of a few trees. While these trees are patrolled by males, females move freely within the territory. As the wing-like membranes on either side of the body are shining, it is also known as ‘Butterfly Lizard’. In case of males, the underside of the wing-like membrane is blue in colour while the females have yellow colour. They are not enlisted as ‘Threatened’ by IUCN.  Though they spend their entire lifetime on trees, females come down to the ground for laying eggs in the soil. The colour of the lizard is brown with grey patches resembling the pattern of tree bark. Because of this advantage they are very good at camouflage. As a result, it is very difficult to identify this elusive lizard. They warm up their body in the early morning sun in order to be active during the day time. They can glide by extending the flaps of skin attached to the side of the body that are supported by six elongated ribs. They can cover a distance of nearly 10 metres when they glide form one tree to another. They can control the direction of the glide by using their tails. This lizard is found in the Western Ghats and in the adjoining hill forests of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa. In recent years this species has been reported in Kanniyakumari Wildlife Sanctuary of Tamil Nadu state. This has been found in some parts of Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh also. They are also found in nearby palm and areca nut plantations. They are insectivorous. They are diurnal. They are found to feed on large number of ants and termites. Males are in the habit of maintaining small territories of two to three trees and chase away the intruding males.

Arboreal snakes and birds feed on this lizard. Indian Golden Oriole and Black-capped Kingfisher have been found to feed on the lizard. Lion-tailed macaques also have been observed to feed on them.

This is not eaten by humans. There is a general belief that this species is poisonous in Philippines, but it is not so. The aesthetic value of watching the lizard in its flight is something rewarding. As identifying this species is very difficult because of its camouflaging character, due significance of this lizard goes unnoticed. Since this lizard species play an important role in the food chain and their population is fast dwindling, due and urgent measures are to be taken to conserve this.

Though they continue to survive, due to fragmentation caused by development by way of hydroelectric projects, irrigation dams, railway lines, roads, plantations, etc., there is a decline in their population. As many of these forest fragments are under the control of private owners, the protection level is highly negligible. Under these circumstances, it is very much necessary to promote the protection and restoration of this lizard species through education, economic incentives and inclusion of the Southern Flying Lizard under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.