This is part 3 of a photo essay on Gippsland’s unique reptiles, this time to include dragon and monitor (goanna) lizards.
Although not highly diverse as much of the rest of Australia, particularly the arid parts of the continent, Gippsland’s dragon lizards (family Agamidae) include a handful of interesting species. Their distribution extends throughout the Gippsland region and each has specific habitat and diet requirements.
On the coastal plain of Gippsland you are likely to come across the well camouflaged Jacky Lizard Amphibolurus muricatus, particularly in the drier woodlands and coastal parts of the region where it can be found on the ground or perched on branches. It is found in the coast and ranges of SE Australia from South Australia to south east QLD.
This species is relatively common in open woodlands and coastal scrub and can be easy to miss when walking through these areas as it blends in well with its surroundings. Growing to a total length of almost 400mm it is very similar to the much smaller Mountain Dragon Rankinia diemensis which also occurs in the region. Jacky Dragons can be identified from this species by the inside of their mouths being bright yellow as well as having no enlarged spines at the sides of the tail base. Mountain Dragon’s mouth is blue inside and they have small spines at the sides of the tail base.
Jacky Dragons have a peculiar way of communicating with each other which include complex movements such as head bobbing, arm waving, push ups, body rocking, tail flicks and colour changes. When disturbed they sometimes run upright on their strong back legs to escape at speed.
The Mountain Dragon, as its name suggests, is typically found in high country but can also extend to the foothills and some parts of the nearby coastal plain.
As with the Jacky Dragon they are very well camouflaged and difficult to detect due to their ability to change their colour to their surroundings. Mountain Dragons feed almost primarily on small insects found in leaf litter and low vegetation of dry woodlands. I have often seen them in the high country perched on the top of small termite mounds feeding on termites. This is a small dragon and can grow to a total length of up to 200mm.
When travelling along rivers and large streams in Gippsland you are often aware of frequent splashes in the water. This is often due to the presence of the large Gippsland Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii howittii, a subspecies of the Eastern Water Dragon which is common along the east coast of Australia and is a semi-aquatic species.
Gippsland Water Dragons inhabit rivers, streams and sometimes rocky intertidal areas of the coast. They frequently perch on rocks, logs and branches overhanging the water and will often use these for a quick access to the water to hunt or escape predators, similar to the freshwater turtle. They have a strong swimming ability and is reputed to be able to remain underwater for over an hour! It feeds on a variety of terrestrial and aquatic species which includes insects, aquatic organisms, small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and mice as well as fruits and berries.
Gippsland Water Dragon males can grow to almost 1m in length and weight up to 1kg. Males have a brilliant colour pattern in the breeding season which includes a bright orange and green blotched neck and green overall body colour with striping on the tail. The Eastern Water Dragon male typically has a reddish pattern on the neck and chest, a dark patch behind the eye and more prominent stripes and the tail and back. It also tends to lack the green body colour of the Gippsland subspecies. Several feral populations of the Eastern Water Dragon have been found in South Australia and Victoria, including Gippsland (Yallourn), presumably escapees from reptile breeders.
The Lace Monitor Varanus varius is a large species of goanna found throughout Gippsland but is becoming increasingly rare in the western part of the region. As such it is listed as threatened in these parts. In central and eastern Gippsland, including the high country, Lace Monitors are still quite common in forest and woodland and will often hang around campsites or rest stops looking for scraps. Individual can have a large home range of up to 1-2 km² in summer but will remain almost dormant in winter. They are semi-arboreal and will often climb trees to raid nests of birds and mammals and will often use large hollows to shelter in.
Lace Monitors are one of the biggest goannas in Australia and males can grow to a total length of over 2m. Their name comes from the network of stripes on the body and neck which can vary in colour and pattern. The typical overall colour is dark grey with a complex series of creamy-yellow spots often merging into stripes. The neck and underparts are cream with dark grey stripes or blotches. Some individuals have a blue tinge to the body, especially the throat.
Another species, Gould’s Sand-Monitor Varanus gouldii, has historically been recorded from far east Gippsland but this hasn’t been seen for decades and it apparently wasn’t a common species in this area.
Dragons and monitors probably evolved on the same lineage as snakes very early in reptile evolution in the Cretaceous period. In fact, monitors are the only lizard to share the forked tongue with snakes which they use to smell scents and it is thought that these two are closely related.
Although not as common as Gippsland’s skinks, the dragons and monitors of the region are always a pleasure to see.