Draco lizards “fly” by extending membrane-covered ribs as shown in this 19th century illustration.
For this blog I wanted to write about some kind of bizarre reptile. As I sat wracking my brain, eventually into it popped an image of a lizard gliding from a high tree limb and soaring through the air. That’s pretty bizarre behavior for a lizard.
Lizards of the genus Draco can do just that. They’re like reptilian flying squirrels. Which leads me into a segue about flying squirrels.
Years ago, I had a pet flying squirrel. It was a northern flying squirrel, which I kept in a birdcage. That squirrel was hands-down the fastest-moving animal I ever kept. It moved so fast it was hard to focus on it unless it was standing still. It was a very cute, furry little animal that developed a fetish for a heavy terrycloth bathrobe I owned at the time. That squirrel loved the bathrobe’s deep pockets. I would hang the robe on a hook that was on the inside of my bathroom door. Then, either holding the squirrel in my hands or with it perched on my shoulder, I would stand several feet away from the robe. The squirrel would inch to the edge of my hand or shoulder, wiggle back and forth a bit, and then suddenly leap toward the robe. It would glide with its furry membrane spread out and steer with its little, bushy tail. Friends and family always got a big kick out of this display. The squirrel would scamper into a pocket and sleep there. I believe I named the squirrel Rocky. Real original, huh?
Draco lizards may not be quite as cute as flying squirrels (well, depending on one’s taste, I suppose), but they enjoy the same type of gliding ability. They are agamids indigenous to forested areas in Southeast Asia. Given Draco lizards’ unique defensive action of gliding away from danger, it should come as no surprise that they are primarily arboreal, though I’ve read that females descend from their treetop habitats to lay eggs. Ants comprise a large part of the Draco diet (much like the extremely difficult-to-keep-for-this-reason horned lizards of the U.S.).
According to the reptile database on the J. Craig Venter Institute website, there are currently 39 species of Draco lizards. Because of their gliding ability, the common names of some can be colorful, such as “Bartlett’s flying dragon.” In my mind’s eye, this brings forth an image more along the lines of the giant flying and fire-breathing dragons in movies like Dragonslayer and Dragonheart rather than an 8-inch-long lizard.
The overall appearance of some Draco lizards is pretty drab, but not all of them are dull-looking. Photos by John C. Murphy illustrate this fact. Draco lizards are able to glide by expanding membrane-covered ribs outward. Check out the video that accompanies this blog to see one in action (it comes after the dragon back tattoo). Somewhat reminiscent of the colorful dewlaps of some lizards, such as anoles, the extended gliding membrane of a Draco lizard is often similarly brightly colored.
I know the thought that pops into many a reptile-lover’s mind when reading about animals is, “I want one; where can I get one?” Draco lizards are not widely available, and when it comes to local stores, they are not exactly abundant. They do pop up on sellers’ lists every once in a great while. Perusing reptile classifieds may yield results, but there is not much information available regarding the care requirements of captive Draco lizards. This reveals that they are not often kept in captivity, and you would not have a large backlog of information to consult when attempting to care for yours. Of course, it can be great to be one of the few who can successfully keep a lizard rare in captivity, and to publish successful care tips you followed while caring for yours for others who may want to follow in your footsteps. But by all indications Draco lizards are not for novices, and only someone who knows what they’re doing, or has access to people who might have some familiarity with the animals, should consider acquiring them should some become available.
For now, if you need a Draco fix, just watch the video repeatedly. It is really cool how these guys can glide! For that ability alone I think these lizards deserve an honorary place on anyone’s weirdest-lizards list. On mine they would share it with another bizarre species: the moloch (Moloch horridus). An excellent article about this lizard, by Wade Sherbrooke, is here.
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