Article and photos by Peter Janzen, Ph.D.
My Sri Lankan journey started with my friend, Gerry Czaja, picking me up at the airport. Driving by car is more expensive but provides independence from crowded buses, packed trains and unnerving taxi drivers. After a few days at his home in Puttalam, we went to my favorite place in Sri Lanka: the Sinharaja Forest, the country’s last viable rain forest, near the city of Ratnapura. The last time I visited was in 1980, and I used a tent. Today you can stay at Martin’s Place, a lodge with a friendly atmosphere and all-inclusive service. It is not a first-class hotel, but you will get everything you need.
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Have a look on the hedges in Nuwara Eliya, and you will find beautiful lizards like this young Calotes nigrilabris.
A Daudin's bronzed-back snake (Dendrelaphis tristis) eats a Sri Lankan bullfrog (Kaloula taprobanica).
Those wishing to enter the Sinharaja Forest may only do so with a guide during the day. You may book your guide and buy entrance tickets at a ranger station located less than 2 miles from Martin’s lodge. The night is a more interesting time to visit tropical forests, but you are not allowed to do so in the Sinharaja Forest. As an alternative, you can herp around the grounds of Martin’s Place at night. You will find an ample number of amphibians and reptiles by listening for their calls.
The Adventure Begins
In the early morning, we visited the forest, climbing up a hill where the view of the Sinharaja canopy was impressive. The first reptile we encountered was a Sri Lankan horned agama (Ceratophora aspera), a very tiny lizard. Soon after that we spotted a kangaroo lizard (Otocryptis wiegmanni), which is quite common and often found on the ground near the footpaths. Also called Wiegmann’s agama, it is restricted to the wet zone with the exception of small hills within the dry and intermediate zones. This lizard is capable of running on its hind limbs, with its tail raised for a short time. Also present were several day geckos (Cnemaspis spp.). These species are difficult to distinguish. To add to the confusion, six new species from Sri Lanka were described in 2007.
The most formidable reptile in the wet zone and in the Sinharaja forest is the hump-nosed lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus). The largest agamid lizard in Sri Lanka, adults are found clinging to tree trunks. Only the young can be found on the ground. If spotted, the lizard will open its mouth and display its red-colored throat and its teeth. Despite this threat, it won’t bite.
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First described in 2005, Otocryptis nigristigma looks similar to O. wiegmanni, but the males are yellow laterally and have a blue throat.
Only the male Ceratophora aspera has a horn.
A one-month-old star tortoise (Geochelone elegans).
The hump-nosed lizard was also present at our next stop, the city of Kandy in the center of Sri Lanka. Kandy is a must for tourists because of an important relict: the Buddha’s tooth, which is preserved in a temple next to Kandy Lake. Just above the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, you can find a secondary forest named the Udawattakele Reserve. There you will see footless scincid lizards (Nessia spp.), the Boie’s rough-sided snake (Aspidura brachyorrhos) and, if you are lucky, interesting creatures like the giant earthworm (Megascolex coeruleus). We found a specimen measuring a little longer than 24 inches.
Entering the Dry Zone
Sri Lanka’s wet zone is found in the western and central part of the Island. This area has the typical attributes we expect from Sri Lanka, such as tea and tropical rain forests. The wet zone is surrounded by a small intermediate zone, and the rest of the island belongs to the dry zone, which has less rainfall during the year. Rainfall in the wet zone is about 120 to 200 inches per year, and in the dry zone it averages between 40 and 80 inches.
Some specimens of the dry zone are easy to find elsewhere, such as the common garden lizard (Calotes versicolor) and some scincid lizards, including Eutropis spp., Lankascincus spp. and Lygosoma spp. These species can easily be found in garden areas, too. To find the Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans), go out early in the morning. After 10 a.m. the sun gets too hot for them. They will find shelter until just before sunset, when they will emerge once again to forage for food. Their reproduction time is during the rainy season, which for the northern and eastern parts of the dry zone is in November and December.
During our trip into the dry zone, we found some interesting reptile species, including one of the new day gecko species named in 2007, Cnemaspis retigalensis, and a second species of kangaroo agama (Otocryptis nigristigma). Female and young of this agama look quite the same as the other kangaroo agama, O. wiegmanni, of the wet zone, but the male is more colorful with yellow laterally and a blue throat.
Another agamid lizard restricted to the drier parts of the island is the fan-throated lizard (Sitana ponticeriana). Best adapted for a dry, hot climate, the fan-throated lizard can also be found in southern parts of India. It is possible, however, that the Sri Lankan specimens belong to different species.
Species of the dry zone are less often endemic as species of the wet zone tend to be. The dry zone’s climate is similar to the climate of the southern tip of India, and species belonging to the wet zone can’t cross the drier part of Sri Lanka to India. However, wet-zone species are mostly related to species of the Western Ghats in India. Both regions are hotspots of biodiversity.
A dry zone species also found in India is the brown vine snake (Ahaetulla pulverulenta). Also called the brown-speckled whip snake, this slender tree snake has an appendage on the tip of its snout that looks like a long nose. It is actually a projection of the mouth. No one knows its purpose for certain, but it is possible that the fleshy appendage is just part of its camouflage. Like its related species, the green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta), it feeds on lizards and frogs. The brown vine snake is often found blending in among the sticks of bushes that have few to no leaves. The green vine snake, on the other hand, is best adapted to bushes with many leaves, where it can blend in. The brown vine snake is restricted to the dry zone and the green vine snake can be found elsewhere, especially next to human settlements. When disturbed, the snake remains motionless and can bite when handled, but the venom is not effective in a human. In fact, if you are not allergic to it, you likely won’t display a reaction at all. Next Page>>
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