Into the Red Centre – Dragons and Geckoes
In September 2011, I traveled to Alice Springs to check out the red center of Australia, the first time in twelve years. With the increase in humidity and heat at this time of year, the animal activity has also increased. Relatively recent, heavy rains have no doubt had some effect too.
In terms of wildlife, the centre of Australia has little rain, and what’s more it’s also highly unpredictable. The sun is intense and the ground is either salt, red sand, dry rocks or small polished stone fields called “gibber.” Trees in many areas are scattered, those on the plains offer some shade, but not a great deal. The sand and rocks can heat up to temperatures that are lethal to many small animals. During the day the arid lands seem to crack and groan under the intense heat. Life, however is surprisingly abundant, though generally small and not easily seen. There are mammals, mostly mice and small marsupial carnivores and a couple of larger species such as the Red Kangaroo and Common Wallaroo. Birds are present, though in reduced numbers compared to wetter areas. Fish hold on in tiny permanent waterholes and frogs are represented by a couple of rock dwelling species and some burrowers. This harsh land however, truly belongs to the reptiles which thrive with the lack of competition.
Although becoming rarer in many areas due to introduced cane toads, Blue Tongue Lizards remain in healthy numbers in the Red Centre. This Centralian Blue Tongue (Tiliqua multifasciata) is a common inhabitant of the mulga woodlands and spinifex plains, where one would assume they burrow into the sand under spinfex or logs. A slow moving animal, they rely on dashing for cover in a short burst, or opening their mouth and hissing, exposing the dark blue tongue. If that fails, they will give a nasty bite. Feeding on plant matter and slow moving insects and other small, slow moving game they are very successful in the deserts, just as their relatives are on the coast.
The Dragon family
For only a few weeks around the southern Spring and Autumn Equinox a curious little creature becomes active and is frequently seen crossing the roads, especially within 24 hours of rain. A dragon known in scientific circles as Moloch horridus and to the layman as the Thorny Devil, both names, as David Attenborough put it “are surely a slander upon its endearing nature” or something to that effect. The Moloch, in ancient texts was a demon that demanded human sacrifice and ate children. The ‘horrid’ part of the scientific name is undeserved as is the title of ‘devil’. Totally harmless and by all means endearing and inoffensive, the Thorny Devil feeds exclusively on ants. Sheltering under bushes and apparently Spinifex grass, they emerge, walking in a most bizzare fashion, every step is clockwork-like and jerky as if it is hesitating. Upon finding a trail of ants, this dragon leans down and laps them up one by one, sometimes consuming thousands in a single meal. Ants provide much of the water they need. But when rains do come this little dragon has a unique and wonderful technique for getting moisture. Any drop that hits their body is automatically channeled by capillaries towards the mouth. Even water the lizard is standing in will head the same way. When it reaches the mouth, they simply lick it up.
Although the Thorny Devil is truly one of a kind, they do have a multitude of close cousins in Australia. In the central arid zone a number of them may provide company on walks and be readily seen on roadsides.
A particularly diverse group of Dragon lizards (Agamids) are the two species of Painted Dragon (Ctenophorous species) which occupy some of the harshest environments of all.
Commonly seen perched on top of burning hot rocks in the heat of the day is the rather tough Ring Tailed Dragon (C. caudicinctus). Small and swift, they like many dragon lizards will communicate by waving an arm. This shows social status and depending on how it is done will determine if the individual in question is an attacker or submissive. Blending in extremely well, they make dashes over the hot rocks to grab flies and beetles. Like other members of the Painted Dragon group, they are able to change colour with ease.
Closely related though much larger and slower is the Central Netted Dragon (C. nuchalis). Able to change colour rapidly they usually show a fine network of pale spots on a darker background that can change from black through orange to yellow. Not common in rocky country they are common on the sand dunes, gibber and saltbush country, using any rock, termite mound or tree stump and even twigs to gain a better view of their surrounds. Preferring to sit still rather than dash for cover, they are easily approached and hardly react to handling except for a little hiss.
Pebbles and small rocks in the sparsely vegetated lowlands are home to one of the smallest dragons, the Central Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis centralis). Although swift and very agile they do prefer to rely on their excellent camouflage to avoid predators and it seems to work as they are extremely common. Named for their lack of visible ears, Earless Dragons are found in many of the drier parts of the country, usually associated with grasslands.
Any area with water, and indeed many places without are home to the Long Nosed Dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris) which is a rather animated and common companion to walkers. Named for the long nose, and surprisingly not for the incredibly long tail it communicates to others with head rattling, arm waving and pushups.
An old favourite, and certainly the most seen lizard around the Alice Springs region is the rather engaging Central Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps). Given an unfortunate and false reputation for having a venemous bite, and often incorrectly called the Frill Neck Lizard they are usually shy and will drop off the boulders and stumps they are sunning themselves on to take cover in a burrow. Opportunists, they will happily eat plant material and any small animal they can catch. When threatened they flatten themselves out, extend the spiny ‘beard’ and snap at the attacker with surprising ferocity.
Painted up like a soldier marching about the dunes and pausing occasionally to rest on its heels in the hot sand in the dunes is the appropriately named Military Dragon, Ctenophorous isolepis. It is a wider- ranging version of the other painted dragons discussed earlier, zipping from one clump of spinifex to another to snap up small insects on the hot sand.
Though Dragons and Blue Tongues are the most prominent during the day, the night certainly belongs to the Geckoes. During the cooler months they may as well not exist as there is practically no sign of them. When the weather warms, things change. Out of burrows under the spinifex come loads of ground geckoes that sport claws rather than adhesive pads on the fingers and toes while from tree hollows and under slabs of bark come other species adapted to a life in the branches. Either way it is a miracle that such tiny, delicate looking creatures can survive at all in this dry, burning hot region.
Although a lizard that looks like a snake, Australian Legless Lizards (Pygopodidae) are thought to be geckoes! This is due to the fact they have a voice, always lay two eggs and lick their eyes instead of blinking. Pygopus nigriceps, the Hooded Scaly Foot is common in the Red Centre, usually active by night. They feed on unlikely prey items like scorpions and wolf spiders. The markings of this species wonderfully mimics the markings of young Brown Snakes (Pseudonaja spp) and as such are often treated as dangerous. Many a Scaly Foot has been squashed due to mistaken identification.
The trees that do exist form homes to this unusual creature. The Spiny Geckoes (Strophurus ciliaris) prefer to live on exposed branches by day, flattening themselves down. Specimens have been recorded toughing out direct sun on days exceeding forty degrees Celsius! By night they crawl slowly along the branches or ground picking off insects and spiders. The spines are soft, but glands in the tail can spray a honey-like liquid that dries quickly and causes extreme irritation to the eyes of an attacker, although after having encountered dozens of them I am yet to see it. In the lack of trees these adaptable lizards are able to use the spiny Spinifex clumps as homes.
Other tree-dwellers are common such as the Purple Dtella (Geyhra purpurescens) which is common around almost any building, especially those with lights. Most comfortable away from the ground, warm drizzly nights are good for finding them foraging around the leaf litter or on open sand.
But for me personally the most fascinating are the ground geckoes. One of the larger and more spectacular is the Smooth Knob Tailed Gecko (Nephurus levis) which lives in tunnels under the spinifex and prowls about by night for insects and smaller geckoes. They, and their close relatives are known as Knob Tails due to the tip of the tail which bears a little knob-like structure. Other species have practically lost the tail entirely and only have the ‘knob.’ About 15cm long and very heavily built some individuals stand up to attackers, squeaking with an arched back and open mouth, followed by a nasty bite. When not threatened they are quite an engaging little creature and one worth looking for.
Other ground geckoes include the exceptionally abundant Beaked Gecko (Rhyncoedura ornata). With a small conical snout much like a beak they taste the air with their tongue, as with other geckoes seeking out small insects. Although small, they will happily latch onto a finger if handled.
Like other geckoes spending the day underground, the Fat-Tailed Gecko (Diplodactylus crassicaudata) surfaces at night to feed. Unusual for geckoes, it uses its tail to plug the entrance to its burrow.
The last species found to date on the dunes is the rather variable Crowned Gecko (Diplodactylus stenodactylus). These two were found just outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Named for the light stripes that dross the eye and join behind the head in sort of a ‘Y’ intersection, the Crowned Gecko is common on sandy and low rocky soils through most of Central Australia.
In the rocky outcrops the most common gecko is the Marbled Velvet Gecko (Oedura marmorata) which is also one of the largest. Named for its skin, which feels rather like velvet, it is rare to see two that are the same colour or pattern, although in the drier regions, the more common colours are similar to this adult pictured here. Juveniles are superbly marked like this one with light bands on dark skin.